Generally, if a person is arrested, the police can search the person’s body and immediate surroundings without first getting a warrant. But according to The Hartford Courant, the U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that police officers may not search an arrested person’s cell phone without first obtaining a warrant. The difference, the Court said, is that modern cell phones contain such a vast amount of data that they deserve greater protection than other items such as wallets, purses, and address books. The Court noted that there are exceptions for some emergency situations when a warrantless cell phone search is permitted.
The Court’s ruling recognizes the fact that 90 percent of Americans have cell phones, which have become a part of the fabric of daily life. Today’s cell phones contain a digital record of just about every aspect of our lives. Having a cell phone means having a camera, video player, Rolodex, calendar, tape recorder, library, diary, album, television, map, and newspaper all rolled up into one.
The cases—one from Massachusetts and one from California—arose when police officers searched the phones of arrested suspects without first obtaining a warrant. Law enforcement officials argued the importance of protecting police officers and preventing the destruction of evidence. They also argued that cell phones can be used by criminals to coordinate and communicate, and can provide incriminating evidence that may not be available elsewhere. The defendants in the two cases, who were backed by civil liberties groups and the news media, argued that their convictions should be overturned because their cell phones should not have been searched without a warrant. The Court sided with the defendants, and held that police must get a warrant before searching a suspect’s cell phone.