fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Our Opinion: Warrant first, phone search second

Just when it seems the U.S. Supreme Court is bent on weakening constitutional protections against the power of government — and losing touch with the rapid advance of information technology — a ruling comes along that restores our faith.

On Wednesday, in examining two cases involving cellphones searched by police, the justices not only said loudly and clearly that police must get a warrant first, but they said so unanimously. In a term marked by a number of 5-4 rulings, 9-0 is a slam dunk.

One of the cases involved a Boston man arrested during an alleged cocaine deal in a convenience store. Information police found on his phone led to convictions on additional drug crimes and illegal gun possession. In the second case, police searched the cellphone of a man stopped for a traffic violation and found information linking him to an attempted murder.

In both of those cases, the court ruled police should have obtained a warrant first. The justices made it clear that police could have seized the men's phones, and even disconnected them or sealed them to prevent accomplices from deleting information remotely, while they waited for a warrant to be approved.

This case is important because it recognizes the difference between a smartphone and other items police might seize from a suspect during an arrest, such as a weapon, a wallet or even an address book. The court in 1969 said police could inspect personal items seized during an arrest without a warrant for safety reasons or to preserve evidence.

But a cellphone, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, is very different from any of those other items:

"A cellphone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house: 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."

And, Roberts noted, a smartphone does not pose a safety risk to officers or anyone else — and can be secured while officers obtain a warrant. But get one they must.

This court has been justly criticized for rulings that seem to bolster official power at the expense of individuals. But in this case, the court got it right.

Roberts acknowledged that Wednesday's ruling might make police officers' jobs harder in some respects. But, he wrote, "Privacy comes at a cost."

That's a cost we're willing to bear.