Supreme Court rules law enforcement needs warrant to search cellphones

In a recent ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that law enforcement officials must have a warrant to search an alleged criminal's cellphone.

In today's technological era, most people have a personal cellphone. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in January, approximately 90 percent of Americans own and regularly use a cellphone while 58 percent possess more sophisticated smart phones. In many criminal defense cases, law enforcement will search these devices to acquire evidence. However, according to Forbes, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that law enforcement officials must acquire a warrant before searching a person's phone who is accused of a crime.

Two defining cases

CNN states that the vote was unanimous and was based on an extensive review of two separate cases. In the first case, which occurred in Massachusetts in 2007, a man was sentenced to 22 years in prison for committing a drug crime after selling two packets of cocaine. The suspect originally gave law enforcement officials a fake address, but they were able to find his real home address after using call logs on his old-style flip phone.

In the second case, which occurred in California in 2009, a college student was arrested and ordered to spend 15 years in prison. The arrest was made after law enforcement officials pulled the student over for expired vehicle registration and driving with a suspended license. After finding weapons under the hood of his car, police officers looked through information on his smartphone. The text messages and videos on it lead them to believe the suspect was involved in additional criminal activity.

Although the conviction for the man in Massachusetts was eventually thrown out by an appeals court, the police officers in both of these cases did not obtain search warrants before searching through the men's phones.

Why are cellphones different?

The Supreme Court did not indicate how other devices a person might have on them during an arrest should be treated in this ruling. These include items like:

  • A cigarette pack.
  • A wallet.
  • A purse.
  • An address book.

In response to this issue, Chief Justice John Roberts said that cellphones should be treated as their own separate category because they are a privacy concern that has different qualitative and quantitative aspects than other items a person might keep on them.

It is not clear yet whether other defendants who were convicted on charges imposed on them after a search of their cellphone will be able to have their cases dismissed. Those who were charged with a crime after their electronic device was searched may benefit from speaking with an attorney who can help them understand the legal implications of this ruling.