The U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark decision last Wednesday by declaring unwarranted police search of cellphones and smartphones during an arrest as unconstitutional. Previously, police could search all physical items on a person to find weapons and preserve evidence.
The cases began in California and Massachusetts, where initial arrests for minor misdemeanors led to larger felonies. In August 2009, when a California man was pulled over for expired tags, police discovered concealed and loaded weapons in his vehicle. Upon his arrest, they seized and searched his phone without warrant which linked him to other crimes unrelated to his traffic stop.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the court’s unanimous decision was based on the advancing technology in our world.
“[Cellphones] are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,” Roberts said in the opinion of the court.
There is no doubt cellphones have revolutionized society. The Pew Research Center, a foundation dedicating to researching public issues, published that as of January 2014, 90 percent of Americans own a cellphone and 58 percent of Americans have a smartphone.
With this many people carrying a smartphone that may contain private information such as emails, bank statements, videos, photos and text messages, the need for additional privacy and security of physical objects a person carries with them at all times has increased dramatically.
It is essential that the courts uphold the vision of the Founding Fathers. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, which is the basis for laws requiring search warrants. The ideas from the 16th century have to be translated to negotiate the evolving ideas and inventions of today’s society.
A cellphone has become more than just a tool used to communicate verbally between two people. It can be considered a camera, diary, file cabinet, mailbox and more. It wasn’t possible 300 years ago, let alone 10 years ago, for a person to carry with them all the information they are capable of carrying today.
“The phrase, ‘There’s an app for that,’ is now part of the popular lexicon,” Roberts said in the decision. “The average smartphone user has installed 33 apps, which together can form a revealing montage of the user’s life.”
Opponents of the Supreme Court’s decision declare the ruling will slow down the criminal prosecution process and could pose danger to the police. However, police are still allowed to check that the phone is not a weapon. Another argument is that cellphones have the ability to be wiped clear from a distance. The answer to that argument is to have the phone placed in a box where signals cannot reach it.
The issue that the Supreme Court has successfully defended in this decision is how much information needs to be protected on a smartphone with respect to personal privacy.
“A cellphone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house,” Roberts said in the decision. “A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form, unless the phone is.”
While it is important to protect the safety of police and speed up the conviction of criminals, our nation was founded on certain rights that other countries had never had before. Although that was hundreds of years ago, the U.S. wouldn’t be the same without these rights, and they need to be translated to society today. The Supreme Court did this justice by declaring it unconstitutional to search cellphones during an arrest without a warrant.
Scotland Preston is a junior in mass communications. Please send comments to [email protected]