Image: LeCours Chertok & Yates, LLP
The US Supreme Court has decided that the search of a cell phone – as a general rule – can’t be conducted without a warrant. The decision, Riley v. California, has had a lot of media attention, including coverage in the New York Times and the Guardian. The Guardian article provides a link to the opinion, but for convenience, we include a direct link to it here.
All nine justices concurred in the ruling, and eight of them joined in the opinion by Chief Justice Roberts. ‘The Supreme Court Justices Have Cellphones, Too’, as the Times pointed out this morning (this was the title of an op-ed piece by commentator Linda Greenhouse).
Concluding that “privacy comes at a cost,” the Court concedes at page 25 of the opinion that “our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime.” Cell phones are excellent ponds to fish in, after all. Officers may find evidence that will help them convict you of the offense for which you’ve been arrested. They may find evidence of other offenses they might not otherwise have known about.
And, of course, they may also find things that will just humiliate you if they’re made public. Officers may or may not have been exploiting this power for private ends routinely. But the potential is always there, as shown by a case reported in the Houston Chronicle some years ago. While searching a young woman’s cell phone ‘incident to arrest’, an officer found that she had some racy photos of herself stored there. The officer downloaded them, and showed them to his buddies and co-workers.