Police Now Need a Warrant to Search Your Cell Phone: 5 Fast Facts

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On Wednesday, June 25, the Supreme Court handed down a number of hugely influential decisions, one of which was the controversial case of Riley v. California, concerning whether or not police can look through the cell phone of a person after they have been arrested.

The Supreme Court decided that the search of cell phones without a warrant, even if the person has been arrested, is unconstitutional.

Here is what you need to know:

1. The Supreme Court Ruled Unanimously

In what seems like a possibility during such a partisan age of American politics, the Supreme Court voted unanimously in the case of Riley v. California that it was unconstitutional for police to search cell phones without a warrant.

Above you can read the full decision above, handed down by Chief Justice Roberts.

2. Petitioner Riley Was Charged Over Contents on His Phone

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A common tool used by police to gain access to information in smart phones.

Riley v. California gets its name from the petitioner David Riley, who was pulled over by California police and eventually arrested on a weapons charge. While in custody, police found a number of seemingly incriminating messages, photos, and videos on his cell phone. The discovery led to him being additionally charged in connection with a shooting and evidence of gang involvement intensified his sentencing process.

Using evidence from Riley’s cell phone also allowed the police to gain a search warrant that turned up drugs and weapons at his home. Riley’s defenders appealed the convictions all the way to the Supreme Court arguing that information gathered without a warrant from Riley’s cell phone was inadmissible.

3. The Court Found a Cell Phone Contains Too Much Personal Information

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The Supreme Court decided that although a cell phone is a casual item carried around in one’s pocket, police rifling through a person’s phone does not equate looking through a person’s wallet or pocket. They write:

First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information— and address, a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video — that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed though a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier. A person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones; he would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several month, as would routinely be kept on a phone.

4. The Court Urges Police: ‘Get a Warrant’

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The decision concludes with Chief Justice Roberts declaring that personal information, regardless of how its carried, is as important to protect from unwarranted search as the letters in a person’s mailbox. He signs off with the kurt paragraph below:

The Fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founder fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant.

5. This Could Have Major Implications for Any NSA Cases

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The Supreme Court’s comments that records of time, participants, and locations of phone calls is unconstitutional in the hands of police without a warrant, may have major implications for any upcoming court cases challenging the NSA’s dragnet collection of cell phone users’ metadata. While the NSA gets permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to collect and store American’s metadata, there are reportedly limited restrictions on how government agents or contractors can sift through them.

Access to what the Supreme Court has deemed private information without individualized or contextualized warrants, may become a problem for the NSA during future court cases.

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