Considering how polarized the U.S. Supreme Court typically is, unanimous decisions have become about as hard to find as milkmen, pay phones and Bigfoot.
But the court’s liberals and conservatives came together last week in recognizing the value of preserving Americans’ privacy in a technological age and issued a forceful 9-0 ruling that our cellphones could not be subject to law enforcement searches without warrants.
Anyone who has a smartphone tucked in one of their pockets is well aware of how vital it has become to our daily lives. We are able to, of course, not only make phone calls from it, but also access email, go online, fire off text messages, use maps to help us navigate our roads, snap photographs, record video images, jot down appointments, watch television, play games and a whole range of other options. Anyone wanting to find out more about us would be stumbling onto a gold mine simply by grabbing our phone and firing it up.
But, writing for the whole court, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged the privacy protections that apply to our homes, businesses, cars and other forms of private property should also be extended to our phones in the event we are arrested, even if it is for a relatively minor infraction.
“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience,” Roberts stated. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life ...”
Noting their ubiquity, he added they have become “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they are an important part of the human anatomy.” However, this fact “does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought.”
Sensibly, police officers and other law enforcement officials have been allowed, for the most part, to proceed without search warrants when making arrests since a suspect could be armed or attempt to destroy evidence. But a cellphone could only cause harm if, say, it was thrown toward an officer’s head. Otherwise, given the same kind of technology that has made cellphones so convenient, officers can usually get a warrant within minutes by using an iPad or email if a phone must be searched with immediacy.
The court’s decision arose from two separate cases. One centered on a California man who was pulled over in 2009 for an expired registration tag and was found to have guns in his car. Police searched his phone without a warrant and found what they believed were clues to the man’s affiliation with a gang and possible links to an attempted homicide. Another involved a search of a Boston woman’s phone in 2007 to find out with whom she had been in touch with.
Donald B. Verrilli, the U.S. solicitor general, argued cellphones were not vastly different from wallets or purses, but the court swatted away that reasoning, countering our phones contain more information about us now than a house once did, and the same expectation of privacy should be attached to them.
Civil libertarians complained in recent years that our privacy has eroded, and some of that happened with our consent and enthusiastic participation. How many of us now make our Facebook friends aware of what we are having for lunch even while we are still munching on it? Nevertheless, our rights to privacy must be maintained.
This Supreme Court decision ensures that.