The US Supreme Court has ruled that police officers usually
need a warrant before they can search the cellphone of an
arrested suspect, a major decision in favor of privacy rights
at a time of increasing concern over government encroachment
in digital communications.
In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the
court said there are some emergency situations in which a
warrantless search would be permitted. But the unanimous 9-0
ruling goes against law enforcement agencies including the US
Department of Justice, which wanted more latitude to search
without having to obtain a warrant.
"We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact
on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime," Roberts
wrote, adding that the right to privacy "comes at a cost."
Roberts acknowledged the unique nature of cellphones in
contemporary life, noting that "the proverbial visitor from
Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human
"The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry
such information in his hand does not make the information
any less worthy of the protection for which the (country's)
Founders fought. 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," Roberts wrote.
The ruling could have a major impact in some jurisdictions
because law enforcement agencies have increasingly made
cellphones searches a top priority when a suspect is
arrested, said Bronson James, a criminal defense attorney in
"Police wanted the data on the cellphones because it was so
expansive," he said. "This stops that practice."
The implications may be limited by the fact that police can
benefit from new technology: it is now possible to obtain a
warrant more quickly using mobile devices to send the
The ruling could hamper law enforcement when there is a need
to gather information from a cellphone immediately because of
an ongoing criminal enterprise, said Robert Mintz, a former
federal prosecutor. "There could be circumstances when news
of an arrest can travel quickly and time could be of the
essence," he said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Ellen Canale said the
government would ensure federal law enforcement agents
complied with the ruling.
The court was considering two separate cases pitting evolving
expectations of privacy against the interests of the law
enforcement community as the justices for the first time
weighed the ubiquitous role of cellphones in modern life.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found 60.7 percent of people
surveyed said police should not be allowed to search
cellphones without a warrant.
Cellphones, initially used purely to make calls, now contain
a wealth of personal information about the owner including
photographs, video and social media content. A 2013 Pew
Research Center report said 91 percent of adult Americans
have a cellphone, more than a half of them smartphones that
can connect to the Internet.
Concern about increasing government encroachment on personal
privacy, especially relating to electronic communications,
has surged in the past year after disclosures by former
National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about
Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier
Foundation digital rights group, said the court's recognition
of the impact of new technology on privacy "will have
important implications for future legal challenges concerning
the government's use of technology," including NSA
The defendants challenging their convictions, David Riley and
Brima Wurie, said evidence found on their phones should not
have been used at trial because the searches were conducted
without court-issued warrants.
The circumstances in the two cases, one from Massachusetts
and one from California, were different in terms of the scope
of the search and the type of cellphone used. Wurie had a
basic flip phone while Riley had a more sophisticated
The court decided the two cases together, finding that both
searches were unconstitutional.
The legal question was whether the US Constitution's Fourth
Amendment, barring unreasonable searches, requires police
following an arrest to get court approval before a cellphone
can be searched.
Riley was convicted of three charges relating to a 2009 San
Diego incident in which shots were fired at an occupied
vehicle. Prosecutors linked him to the crime in part based on
a photograph police found on his smartphone.
Police searched Wurie's cellphone without a warrant after his
2007 arrest for suspected drug dealing. Officers used the
device, which was not a smartphone, to find a phone number
that took them to Wurie's house in Boston, where drugs, a gun
and cash were found.
The cases are Riley v. California, 13-132 and US v. Wurie,