Supreme Court: Warrant Required for Cell Phone Searches

In a landmark ruling today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that police cannot search the cell phones of suspects without first obtaining a warrant. As our criminal defense lawyers know, and as CNN reporter Pamela Brown commented, “this is a big blow to law enforcement and a big win for privacy rights.”
The decision, a much anticipated one, grouped cell phones and other electronic devices in with products such as wallets, handbags and motor vehicles, a category of items “subject to limited initial examination by law enforcement,” according to the article.

The importance of the ruling is further highlighted by the fact that the Supreme Court, one which typically rules on cases along strict party lines, issued this ruling unanimously, quashing any doubt about peoples’ right to privacy when it comes to their cell phones.

Although the ruling reignites the debate over the National Security Agency’s (NSA) constitutionally questionable collection of so-called metadata, that issue was not the catalyst for this case. The case was the result of two convictions (one in California and one in Massachusetts), which were made possible after police searched the cell phones of suspects. After collecting text messages, phone numbers, addresses and photographs from the cell phones, law enforcement officers were able to link the suspects to drug and gang-related activities.

The findings by law enforcement in the cell phones of the criminal suspects enabled prosecutors to demonstrate the apparent guilt of the two suspects. On appeal, though, the Supreme Court clearly indicated that the searching of the suspects’ cell phones violated their constitutional rights to due process and agianst unreasonable search and seizure.

The Court’s opinion read, in part, “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 Founders fought … Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.” Essentially, as our Palm Beach and Broward County criminal defense lawyers understand, the fact that cell phones are ubiquitous and mobile shouldn’t mean that they don’t deserve as much privacy protection as, say a briefcase or a filing cabinet, which could contain just as much sensitive information.

While the court was clear about the fact that, as mentioned above, the privacy rights relating to cell phones should be considered alongside those associated with wallets and motor vehicles, Chief Justice John Roberts was clear that cell phones raised considerably more privacy concerns than other items typically found on arrested persons. He mentioned, “modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse … [because they] differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.”

This decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has legal implications all over the country, including in Florida, where law enforcemnt officers must first obtain a warrant before searching the cell phone of a suspect or arrestee. Our Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade County criminal defense lawyers understand the importance of protecting the privacy rights of our clients. If you have been arrested for or charged with a crime in Palm Beach, Broward or Miami-Dade County, please contact us for a free consultation by calling 1-888-5-DEFEND (1-888-533-3363). We look forward to hearing from you.

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