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Supreme Court Rules Police Must Have Warrant to Search Cell Phones

In a victory for Americans’ digital privacy, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that police may not search the digital contents of cell phones seized from individuals who have been arrested unless they obtain a warrant.

June 25, 2014

New York – Police may not search the digital contents of cell phones seized from indi­vidu­als who have been arres­ted unless they obtain a warrant, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in two land­mark digital privacy cases, Riley v. Cali­for­nia and United States v Wurie.

Cell phones, the Court found, record vast amounts of inform­a­tion about our daily lives. While police tradi­tion­ally have been allowed to search phys­ical objects they find on an arrestee without a warrant, this does not entitle them to also rummage through the entire contents of an indi­vidu­al’s cell phone.

“Today’s decision is a resound­ing victory for the digital privacy of Amer­ic­ans,” said Michael Price, Coun­sel at the Bren­nan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Secur­ity Program. “The police should­n’t be allowed to search the contents of someone’s cell phone simply because they were pulled over for a traffic viol­a­tion. A warrant require­ment to search an arrestee’s cell phone will preserve the delic­ate balance between privacy and secur­ity in law enforce­ment invest­ig­a­tions.”

“The Court found that the old rules no longer account for the volumes of personal inform­a­tion stored on modern cell phones,” said Amos Toh, Katz Fellow at the Bren­nan Center. “Our inter­pret­a­tions of the Fourth Amend­ment must evolve to keep pace with advances in tech­no­logy. Today’s ruling will go a long way in prevent­ing our personal data from being unduly searched, stored, and abused without proper judi­cial over­sight.”

Read the Supreme Court’s decision here.

Read the Bren­nan Center’s amicus brief filed in Riley v. Cali­for­nia here.

Read more about the privacy concerns surround­ing Amer­ic­ans’ collec­ted data here.

For more inform­a­tion or to speak to an expert, contact Seth Hoy at seth.hoy@nyu.edu or (646) 292–8369.