Treating modern cellphones as gaping windows into nearly all aspects of the user’s life and private conduct, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ordered police to get a search warrant before examining the contents of any such device they take from a person they have arrested. Seeing an individual with a cellphone is such a common thing today, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., wrote, “the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”From the opinion of the Court:
The Court rejected every argument made to it by prosecutors and police that officers should be free to inspect the contents of any cellphone taken from an arrestee. It left open just one option for such searches without a court order: if police are facing a dire emergency, such as trying to locate a missing child or heading off a terrorist plot. But even then, it ruled, those “exigent” exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant would have to satisfy a judge after the fact.
The ruling was such a sweeping embrace of digital privacy that it even reached remotely stored private information that can be reached by a hand-held device — as in the modern-day data storage “cloud.” And it implied that the tracking data that a cellphone may contain about the places that an individual visited also is entitled to the same shield of privacy.
The Court’s ruling drew some suggestions by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., to narrow its scope, but it did not accept those. The result was the broadest constitutional ruling on privacy in the face of modern technology since the Court’s ruling two Terms ago limiting police use of satellite-linked GPS tracking of a suspect’s movements by car.
We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.Or as Charlton Heston said in Touch of Evil, " A policeman's job is only easy in a police state."