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Posted by on Jun 26, 2014 in At TMV | 14 comments

Supreme Court Ruling Says You Can’t Search Cell Phones Without a Warrant

cell phone search

In a landmark decision issued June 25, the Supreme Court decided it’s unconstitutional in most instances for police to search a person’s cell phone without obtaining a warrant. The decision was issued in response to two separate cases brought to the Court – Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie. Both cases dealt with the question of whether or not searching a person’s phone after an arrest violated the person’s Fourth Amendment rights. All justices were unanimous in saying it did, which overturned the decisions of two lower courts.

Courts had formerly alleged that cell phones need to be searched to protect police officers and prevent evidence tampering. However, in writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts declared this logic is not applicable to the smartphones we use today. Since today’s cell phones contain an enormous amount of personal information, they require more protection. Here are some more facts about the rulings, and how they could affect you in the future.

A Mountain of Data

According to Chief Justice Roberts, the vast majority of Americans own a cell phone, and these devices can hold an almost unfathomable amount of private information. Virtually all facets of our lives are included in our phones. Whether it be email correspondence with old friends, social media activity, Google searches or visits to websites like or, you can find out so much about a person’s private life after just pressing a few buttons.

The subject of searching phones hasn’t been such a hot-button issue until fairly recently. Just 10 years ago few Americans had email on their phones, let alone social media apps and global positioning tools. In addition, many phones had relatively low storage capacity, meaning you’d have to delete old text messages fairly frequently or your phone would fill up. Now, though, our phones can hold years of backlogged conversations. That’s not to mention how a tech-savvy person could figure out virtually every place you’ve been with your phone if you enabled location services. In light of all of this, the Court decided we should have a reasonable amount of privacy when it comes to our phones.

What Police Can Search

Don’t think this ruling gives you unlimited privacy, though. In case you are arrested, police still have the right to search your immediate surroundings. In some cases they may also still be able to search for your phone. According to the Supreme Court, cell phones may still be fair game if your arrest relates to a time-sensitive issue or a clear and immediate danger. Some examples include a kidnapping, terrorist attack or another incident of mass violence.

The NSA and the Digital Age

One of the biggest questions in the wake of the decision is how the ruling will affect the NSA. It’s widely known that the NSA has used digital information to screen potential terrorists in the past. According to one report by the New York Times, the NSA can do a background check on you several hours before you arrive at the airport for your flight. The NSA has also reportedly tried to obtain mass amounts of data from companies like Google and Yahoo for terrorist screenings. Given the Supreme Court’s latest ruling on cell phones, is all digital data now subject to privacy laws?

What are your thoughts on the Supreme Court’s ruling? Do you agree officers should have to obtain a warrant before searching the cell phone of someone they’ve arrested? Do you think this will impact the NSA?

Image by Viktor Hanacek

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