SCOTUS hears 2 criminal cases on warrantless cellphone searches

It has long been the case that technology advances faster than the laws meant to regulate its use do. Sometimes laws and court rulings govern the ways in which individuals are allowed to use technology. Other times, they regulate the scope of how technology and the private data contained within our devices are protected from unreasonable search and seizure by law enforcement.

Smart phones arguably contain more personal data than most other devices that we own. Yet since the advent of the smart phone (and cellphones generally), there has been no clear guidance on whether police can search cellphones seized from a suspect upon arrest without first obtaining a warrant. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear arguments in two cellphone-related cases, each of which has significant criminal defense and privacy implications. In both cases, law enforcement officers seized the defendants’ cellphones upon arrest and then searched the devices without a warrant.

Supreme Court rulings from the 1970s set the precedent for law enforcement agencies to search arrestees without a warrant. The goal was to both prevent suspects from destroying evidence and to make sure they weren’t carrying weapons.

The Obama administration is among the entities in favor of warrantless cellphone searches. It has argued that cellphones should not be treated any differently than other items being carried at the time of arrest.

Critics of warrantless cellphone searches strongly disagree, including the American Civil Liberties Union. Traditionally, the Supreme Court has held that Americans have the greatest expectation of privacy within their own homes, meaning that police nearly always need a warrant to search private residences. In an amicus brief filed by the ACLU, the group argued that “cellphones and other portable electronic devices are, in effect, our new homes.”

Because this issue is so controversial and widely contested, it is hard to know how the Court will rule, and whether it will issue uniform rulings in both cases. Suffice it to say, however, that whatever the Court decides will likely have a significant impact on the future of police investigations as well as individual privacy rights.

 

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