The Supreme Court issued an important ruling yesterday. In a 9-0 decision, the Court ruled that police must obtain a warrant before they search the cellphones of people they have arrested. The ruling won’t directly affect most of us — unless you’re planning on being arrested in the near future, that is — but it represents a significant recognition of the central role of cellphones in our lives and an important bit of line-drawing in the ongoing battle between personal privacy and law enforcement.
In the ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts addressed both the pervasiveness of cellphones in modern America and the sweeping extent of information that people store on them. From photos and video to address books, emails to calendars, financial information to maps, and other records of where we have been and who we have communicated with, cellphones are a handheld repository of huge amounts of very personal information about our private lives. The Chief Justice thus reasoned that allowing warrantless searches of cellphones would be akin to the hated “general warrants” executed by the British authorities during colonial times that allowed them to rummage freely through homes in an effort to find some evidence of some kind of otherwise uncharged criminal activity — which is what drove the creation of the warrant clause of the Bill of Rights in the first place.
The Court also rejected arguments that a search of cellphones is needed to protect police officers or prevent the destruction of evidence. When an arrest is made police can examine the cellphone to ensure that it can’t be used as a weapon and secure it, and if there is concern that evidence on the phone might be destroyed the officer can turn off the phone, or remove the battery, or place it in a foil bag to prevent any exchange of signals. But before the police can access the cellphone and begin reviewing recent emails, the logs of recent calls, and other information, they must make the probable cause showing required by the Fourth Amendment and convince a judge to issue a warrant.
Two other points about the opinion seem worth emphasizing. First, it was a unanimous decision. For all of the fretting about political fracturing and the liberal and conservative wings of the Court, all of the Justices were able to agree on how to resolve a very central issue of how the Constitution works in modern life. There’s nothing wrong with members of the Supreme Court disagreeing about legal issues — that’s why there are nine of them and the majority wins — but it’s nice to see the different perspectives coalesce around a simple, common approach to protecting individual liberty and privacy rights.
Second, many people have criticized jurists who return to the intent of the Framers of the Constitution and seek the meaning of its provisions in the historical context in which they were adopted, arguing that the Constitution should be a living document with meaning that changes in response to the realities of modern life. Others contend that such an approach strips America’s core founding document of any objective significance and leaves it to mean whatever five Justices of the Supreme Court say it means.
The Court’s cellphone opinion, with its reference to the history of general warrants, shows how it is possible to draw upon historical context to identify the basic motivating principles underlying the Constitution and then apply those principles to the modern world. Those observers who poke fun at purportedly hidebound efforts to discern “original intent” likely are happy with the opinion yesterday, but not about how the Court got to that result.