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Warrantless cell phone searches ruled illegal by Supreme Court

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(NaturalNews) In a decision being seen as a huge victory for privacy advocates who have not had many in the digital age, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that police must follow the Constitution if they want to search the contents of your cell phones.

The ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, evokes the Fourth Amendment's requirement that authorities must first obtain a search warrant naming the parameters of the search before they can examine data, documents, pictures or other information on suspects' cell phones.

According to The Washington Times, police departments had argued that searching through data on a cell phone was no different from asking a suspect to empty his pockets. The justices, however, rejected that position and said that data contained on a cell phone is fundamentally different.

The Times said that the "ruling amounts to a 21st century update to legal understanding of privacy rights."

'Get a warrant'

"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 Founders fought," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court.

"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," he continued.

The ruling even went so far as to prohibit police from checking suspects' phone call logs, saying that even those contain more information than just phone numbers. Perusing them, therefore, is a violation of privacy that cannot be justified without first obtaining a warrant.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution says: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Roberts, in his ruling, said that cellphones are different not just because people can carry with them so much more data -- the equivalent of millions of pages of documents -- which police could access at a whim, but also due to the nature of the data, which justices said was qualitatively different from what someone might otherwise carry with them.

He said it had the potential to lay bare someone's entire personal history, from their medical records to their "specific movements down to the minute."

Roberts also cited earlier court precedent that established a difference between asking someone to turn out his pockets versus "ransacking his house for everything which may incriminate him." The court found that cell phones fall into the latter category.

The Times further reported on the case:

Complicating matters further is the question of where the data is actually stored. The Obama administration and the state of California, both of which sought to justify cell phone searches, acknowledged that remotely stored data couldn't be searched -- but Chief Justice Roberts said with cloud computing, it's now sometimes impossible to know the difference.

'These decisions are huge for digital privacy'

The ruling did, however, contain exemptions for "exigencies" that could arise, such as national security issues.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation, a group seeking to strengthen privacy in the digital age, called the ruling "groundbreaking."

"These decisions are huge for digital privacy," EFF Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury said in a statement. "The court recognized that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires heightened privacy protection, and cannot be searched at a police officer's whim. This should have implications for other forms of government electronic searches and surveillance, tightening the rules for police behavior and preserving our privacy rights in our increasingly digital world."

Added Steven R. Shapiro, the national legal director of the ACLU: "By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today's decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans. We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognized, our old values still apply and limit the government's ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives."





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