The court unanimously ruled Wednesday that police can't search the cellphones of people they arrest without a warrant.
Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the vast amount of personal information contained on an individual's cell phone must be protected from routine police inspection. The data contained on a cell phone constitutes “a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives,” he wrote, “from the mundane to the intimate.”
He suggested previous rulings are not applicable in light of new technology, characterizing the word “cell phone” itself as a misnomer. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers,” he wrote.
Representatives from the federal government and the state of California argued that the courts have long allowed warrantless searches in connection with arrests, as they are necessary to protect law enforcement and prevent destruction of evidence. They also argued that a cell phone is not materially different from a wallet or billfold, which police may search as part of a routine inspection. Justice Antonin Scalia called the position “absurd” during oral arguments, a sentiment echoed in the court's opinion.
“That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon," Roberts wrote.
Legal observers noted that the language in the court's ruling could give new life to lawsuits that claim the NSA's monitoring program violates the Fourth Amendment.
B/c of the broad language about digital privacy, today's ruling may be significant for NSA's domestic surveillance.— SCOTUSblog (@SCOTUSblog) June 25, 2014
Lower courts have reacted with mixed results to those lawsuits, but the Supreme Court is widely expected to have the final word in the matter.