The United States Supreme Court issued a highly anticipated and carefully watched opinion today, one that affirms the privacy rights of every person in this country who may happen to come into contact with law enforcement. In Riley v. California, the Court ruled that a police officer may not search a persons cell phone following arrest without first obtaining a search warrant. The decision didn’t exactly send shockwaves throughout the judicial system. However, for those of us familiar with the Supreme Court, and its propensity to chip away at our personal privacy rights , as well as its clear ideological divide, it was surprising that the Court ruled for the defendant on a 9-0 vote.
Let us not forget the undeniable fact that most people save their entire lives on smart phones and other electronic devices. Bank account information. Physician and prescription information. Private emails and web browsing history. Let’s face it, some folks may be quite embarrassed by what could be found on their phones! In addition, some people, despite the foolishness of the very idea, store various passwords on their electronic devices. Let us also not forget that 4 of the 9 Justices were born in the 1930′s, a time when telephones were large, clunky and not widely used. These Justices were either in their 70′s, or close to it, by the time cell phones became ubiquitous in our culture. Even my generation grew up with a common sight in most kitchens: a dial phone, attached to the wall, with a 10 foot cord attached so people could walk around while talking on the phone. The fact that the Supreme Court, which is comprised of some rather geriatric characters, recognized the changing landscape of electronic privacy issues is quite a victory for the Fourth Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution (every state has a similar provision as well) prohibits the government from searching our person and/or possessions without first obtaining a search warrant. In order to obtain a search warrant, a law enforcement officer must swear under oath that he or she has enough facts to support the idea that a crime has been committed, or evidence of a crime can be located in a particular place. This Amendment was specifically included in the Bill of Rights. It was a response to the King of England’s propensity to have his subjects searched for whatever reason he wanted. Our Founding Fathers recognized that, in order to be a truly free and liberated society, certain things must remain free from government intrusion.
However, over time, and piece by piece, the United States Supreme Court has eroded the very privacy rights the Founding Father’s considered so sacrosanct. The Court began to carve out certain “exceptions” to the warrant requirement, despite the fact that neither the Fourth Amendment, nor the Constitution as a whole, contemplated such liberal interpretations. The Court has authorized warrantless searches under a number of scenarios, including but not limited to: 1) a search incident to an arrest; 2) a search of an automobile if there is probable cause to believe it contains contraband, the so-called “automobile exception”; 3) a search when there are exigent circumstances, or emergencies; 4) a search is it is reasonable to conclude that a person is armed and dangerous. However, never has the Court given the green light to search an electronic devise without probable cause and a warrant. For those of us who value our privacy rights, thankfully the Court declined to change its course in Riley v. California.
In short, unless a police officer has a search warrant, our cell phone date will remain private and in our control. One too many unpaid parking tickets? At least now your phone can’t be searched if you are arrested on an outstanding traffic ticket!!