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The Supreme Court of the United States entered the 21st century on Wednesday, June 25, with a unanimous ruling on two cases involving cellular phones and privacy.The Supreme Court of the United States.

The court essentially ruled that the information stored on a cell phone or other portable electronic device is protected by the Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable searches and seizures and requires police to obtain a search warrant from a judge before searching private property for criminal activity.


Police have long had the authority to search a suspect for contraband like guns or drugs, but searching cell phones has been in a gray area.

Is a phone protected from warrantless searches, like a car, email or a home?

The justices looked at two cases, Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie. In the Riley case, police stopped a driver for expired registration and discovered both a suspended license and loaded guns in the car.

Without a warrant, police searched the driver’s cell phone and found photos suggesting gang activity. In the Wurie case, police searched two cell phones of a suspected drug dealer, used a stored phone number to locate the suspect’s home address, then obtained a warrant and searched it, finding more drugs.

The question before the court was not whether these suspects might be guilty of committing other crimes, but whether their privacy was protected from unreasonable searches by the government. Conservative and liberal justices agreed 9-0 that the right to privacy written by the Founding Fathers in 1789 does indeed extend to then-inconceivable technology like cell phones and smart phones.

The information that can be stored on cell phone isn’t like the simple phone records of old landlines, but allows unfettered access to a person’s email, bank records, personal photos and social media networks. A person’s life can be found on a portable device, and the privacy of that device is protected from warrantless government searches.

The ruling makes clear that if a police officer or government agent asks, “Can I see your cell phone?” a person should respond, “Can I see your warrant?”

What makes these cases somewhat unusual is the unanimity of the ruling. Generally if a case looks to be unanimous, the court will pass and let the lower court’s ruling stand, but the justices took on these cases.

Lawsuits against the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on Americans — revealed by Edward Snowden — are working their way up through the courts and some legal scholars suggest this ruling — and its unanimity — will give the justices relevant case law to strike down the NSA’s program or at least its scale and protect Americans’ privacy from much broader searches by the government.

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion. “Privacy comes at a cost.”

The privacy of all Americans is at risk if the privacy of one American can be violated.

 


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