In a unanimous decision on Wednesday, the court ruled that police can no longer search cellphones during arrests without a warrant. It doesn’t matter if the cellphone is related to the reason of the arrest. Before this ruling, police were allowed to search a person’s pockets and examine its contents if they had “probable cause.”
This ruling was reached after two cases were brought before the court: Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie. In the first case, the police searched the car of David L. Riley, who was pulled over because his auto registration was expired. When the police found loaded guns in his car, the police then searched his smartphone and discovered photos that the police believed proved a gang relation. This evidence led to a conviction and a prison sentence of 15 years. As a result of the new ruling, Riley’s case will get a second look.
In the second case, police searched the call log of Brima Wurie’s phone after they suspected him of selling crack cocaine. Police were able to locate Wurie’s home using the call log of his phone. From there, the police obtained a warrant to search his home, where they found drugs including crack and marijuana along with a gun and ammunition. Wurie was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The sentence still stands, as the court upheld the ruling.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts delivered the opinion on the two cases: “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what policy must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”
The decision to require warrants for phone searches is a major win for protecting digital privacy rights.