Hooray for privacy! Unanimous Supreme Court Holds That Police Need Search Warrant to Access Data in Cell Phones After an Arrest

Federal criminal cases, State criminal case, here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia and the rest of the country, are all impacted by this morning’s blockbuster ruling from the Supreme Court. The Court held that when a person is arrested, law enforcement cannot simply look through all the data in the arrested person’s cell phone, unless they first get a warrant from a judge. This massively important ruling is just the latest example of how the breakneck pace of modern technology runs square into the Eighteenth Century privacy considerations enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution. I have written about this in earlier posts like this and this. . Read today’s case here.

Back in 1969, the Supreme Court issued a decision called Chimel v. California. Police officers looked through a pack of cigarettes in Mr. Chimel’s pocket after arresting him, discovering contraband. The Supreme Court in that case said the search was OK, creating what we call the “search incident to arrest” principle. When a person is arrested, it is basically OK for the cops to look through anything he or she is carrying or has on his or her person, with no need for a warrant.

With the advent of modern cell phones, law enforcement realized that they had a treasure trove of potential evidence in a suspect’s pocket, the modern “smart phone.” However, for a few years judges looked to the old Chimel case, and ruled that a cell phone is no different than a pack of smokes. However, my personal opinion is that the tide began turning when elderly judges themselves began to convert to modern technology, and realized how easy it is for the police, our government, or simply other people, to look into the most private parts of our lives by accessing the data on our cell phones.

Today’s 9-0 ruling is a clear stance in favor of personal privacy. Writing the opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts rejected the Government’s claim that searching a cell phone is no different than looking through the cigarette pack in Mr. Chimel’s pocket. “That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon. Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together. Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.”

This is a great ruling. We will study it, and try to see if helps any of our current or former clients. We will also continue to press judges to remember that we all lose when our collective privacy is sacrificed on the alter of temporary law enforcement needs.