SCOTUS Finds Expectation of Privacy in Cell Phones

Warrant Required to Search Cell Phone Data

The Supreme Court has determined that police need a warrant in order to search a cell phone under the Fourth Amendment. The question in Riley v. California was whether the data within a cell phone is subject to a search incident to arrest. Basically, when police arrest someone, they are allowed to do a complete search of that person. Now, with the new court ruling, the police can no longer access the cell phone’s data during that search without a warrant.

Search Incident to Arrest

The search incident to arrest rule came about in a 1973 case called United States v. Robinson which held that police can do a warrantless search of a person when they are arrested. In coming to this rule, the Court balanced the police interest with the individual’s right to privacy. For the police, the Court decided that police concerns about risks to officers and destruction of evidence were present in all arrests, and were very important interests. On the other hand, individuals have very little expectation of privacy when they are arrested. So lots of government interest, very little privacy interest.

A Modern Rebalancing

Fast forward 40 years and now we have smart phones. These things carry insane amounts of very personal data, from bank accounts to geotracking. The Court in 1973 never could have imagined such a world. In fact, the world’s supercomputer at that time held only 200mb of data ( Compare that to a 32gb cell phone. So the Court in 2014 looked at the same balancing of interests that they did in 1973, but applied it just to cell phone data. When it comes to cell phone data, the risks of harm to the police or destruction of evidence are very little (are you going to Tweet them to death?). However, the individual’s expectation of privacy is huge. So the balance shifts to little government interest verses large privacy interests.

riley v california

Of course, police can still seize your cell phone when you’re arrested; they just can’t start poking around to check your email or anything without getting a warrant first. The Supreme Court basically distinguished between physical objects, and digital data. The balance of interests is very different between the two, so they need a different result under the Fourth Amendment.

Decision Will Have a Wider Impact on Digital Data Privacy

This was the correct decision, and one that should have been made decades ago when computers became standard. In fact, while this case is limited to cell phone data, it may expand very soon. Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the Court’s opinion, called cell phones “mini-computers.” If privacy interests exist in cell phones, why not exist in other computers and data storage devices? The lower courts have been struggling with this question, and the Court may have answered it for them.

From a practical perspective, police will probably get warrants for cell phone data very easily if it’s relevant to the case. It’s just a bit more paperwork.

NY Times – Major Ruling Shields Privacy of Cellphones