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Supreme Court: Police may not search smartphones without warrant

| Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 11:39 a.m.
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Kirsten Luna from Holland, Mich., uses her smartphone outside the U.S. Supreme Court after a major ruling on cell phone privacy by the court June 25, 2014 in Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court issued a ruling requiring law enforcement officials to have a search warrant to search the cellphones of suspects they arrest.

Police across the country must get a search warrant if they want to view the data inside cellphones seized from people they arrest, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a decision hailed by many as a strong defense of digital-age privacy.

“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life.”

The message to police about what they should do before rummaging through a cellphone's contents following an arrest is simple, Roberts said: “Get a warrant.”

The chief justice acknowledged that barring searches would affect law enforcement but said: “Privacy comes at a cost.”

The Obama administration and the state of California, defending the cellphone searches, said cellphones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find.

But the defendants in these cases — backed by civil libertarians and news media groups — argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, are increasingly powerful computers that can store troves of sensitive personal information.

“By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today's decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans,” said American Civil Liberties Union legal director Steven Shapiro.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris called the ruling “a big one,” in part because the court doesn't always understand technology and its consequences.

“Here, there's a very strong sense that not only do the justices understand what cellphones and smartphones are, they have them. You really get a sense they know how deep and wide the information stored in a cell phone is,” he said.

“It's the equivalent of a personal diary in very great detail with pictures to illustrate it. ... The court was right to put this protection on it.”

Though police in Pennsylvania are required to obtain a search warrant or consent to search a cellphone, the ruling “reaffirms” Pennsylvanians' Fourth Amendment rights, said Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney Blaine Jones.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures” and requires investigators to convince a judge they have probable cause to obtain a search warrant.

“The Supreme Court's ruling basically upheld what's been done in Pennsylvania. This bolstering of rights, however, is so important because it's the opposite of what I've seen taking place throughout the years,” Jones said.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a concurring opinion that he would prefer elected lawmakers, not judges, to decide matters of privacy protection in the 21st Century. Elected officials “are in a better position than we are to assess and respond to the changes that have already occurred and those that almost certainly will take place in the future,” Alito said.

Trib Total Media staff writer Adam Brandolph contributed to this report.

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