Sara's Column: SCOTUS cellphone ruling likely to become landmark

The Supreme Court Wednesday decided a case that I believe will become known as a landmark case.
Jun 27, 2014
Sara McManamy-Johnson

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

— U.S. Constitution, Fourth Amendment

The Supreme Court Wednesday decided a case that I believe will become known as a landmark case.

With Riley v. California, the Court laid to rest any confusion or doubt regarding people’s expectations of privacy for their cellphones, as it relates to law enforcement searches.

The Court’s decision mirrors a stance that is already codified in Tennessee law, validating the constitutionality of Tennessee’s law.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Court’s opinion, where he discussed many of the ways technology has changed the way people go about their lives.

“Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day,” wrote Roberts. “Now it is the person who is not carrying a cellphone, with all that it contains, who is the exception.”

He cited one poll that reported nearly three-quarters of smartphone users said their phones are within 5 feet from them most of the time.

“It is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90 percent of American adults who own a cellphone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives,” wrote Roberts.

And he’s not wrong.

With apps that will allow users to do anything from deposit a check to pay at a local retailer to monitor and log health vitals, the information to be had on cellphones is unnervingly intimate in many cases. 

And that’s not even taking into account all the photos people randomly shoot on their phones. 

Roberts even cited potential implications of web browsing history and GPS location history.

I can understand why some law enforcement has spoken against requiring warrants for cellphone searches incident to an arrest – cellphones can be veritable treasure troves of information for them. And I’m not opposed to law enforcement being able to access that information when necessary; quite the opposite, in fact.

But I also believe our cellphones are no less worthy of Fourth Amendment protection than our persons, our homes or our vehicles.

By requiring a warrant except in exigent circumstances, the Court is not saying the information will not be available to law enforcement should the need arise; it’s simply saying there should be oversight.

And Roberts could not have articulated it more succinctly.

“Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant,” wrote Roberts.

Thank you, Supreme Court.

Sara McManamy-Johnson is the digital content director for The Lebanon Democrat and Wilson County News. Email her at sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com or follow her on Twitter @wilsoncoreports. 

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