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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Supreme Court Rules Cops Can't Search Cell Phones Without a Warrant

Posted By on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 at 9:13 AM

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Cops can no longer scour through the cell phones of people they arrest, absent a warrant or special circumstances, the Supreme Court ruled today.

Meaning: your phone now has the same Fourth Amendment protections as your house.

That's a huge victory for privacy buffs and civil libertarians, who've long argued that a phone isn't just a vessel through which we communicate -- it's also a vast cache of information, capable of storing "bookshelves worth of photo albums, and substantial medical and financial information," as lawyers for the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out in a friend-of-the-court brief.

Historically, cops have used those troves to connect the dots between suspects, and link them to other crimes. Law enforcement agencies also have special arrangements with AT&T and other carriers that allow them to collect phone records in bulk, to help prosecute drug cases.

See also: Law enforcement's secret partnership with phone companies.

Today's Supreme Court decision stems from two cases: In the first, San Diego police used pictures in suspect David Leon Riley's phone to help tie him to the Bloods street gang. In the second, Boston cops traced a call to suspect Brima Wurie's flip phone, and used it to charge him with selling drugs. As MSNBC reporter Adam Serwer points out, both suspects violated the so-called "Stringer Bell" rule: don't ever document your own criminal conspiracy. But now it might become a lot harder for law enforcement to exploit criminals' clumsiness. Per today's decision, your cell phone isn't just your personal file cabinet or computer, any more -- it's your temple. While this opinion won't really touch on other surveillance programs -- like the aforementioned Hemisphere project -- it could affect them in the long run, according to Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Hanni Fakhoury. "It's a fantastic opinion both because it creates a bright line rule -- no searches of cell phones incident to arrest -- and because the court recognized the privacy implications of allowing broad digital searches by the government," Fakhoury writes, via e-mail. And as a result, he continues, it might influence other courts as they grapple with the constitutionality of other electronic searches and surveillance, including mass data-gathering by the NSA.
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About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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