The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that police officers usually need a warrant before they can search an arrested suspect's cellphone.
The court said on a 9-0 vote in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts that the right of police to search an arrested suspect at the scene without a warrant does not extend in most circumstances to data held on a cellphone. There are some emergency situations in which a warrantless search would be permitted, the court noted.
The ruling is a blow to law enforcement agencies that would prefer more latitude to search without having to obtain a warrant.
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"We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime," Roberts wrote.
The right to privacy, he said, "comes at a cost."
The court was weighing two separate cases that pitted evolving expectations of privacy against the interests of the law enforcement community as the court for the first time weighed the increasingly ubiquitous role of cellphones in modern day life.
The defendants challenging their convictions, David Riley and Brima Wurie, said evidence found on their phones should not have been used at trial because the searches were conducted without court-issued warrants.
The circumstances in the two cases, one from Massachusetts and one from California, were different, both in terms of the scope of the search and the type of cellphone used. Wurie had a basic flip phone while Riley had a more sophisticated smartphone.
The court decided the two cases together, finding that both searches were unconstitutional.
The legal question was whether the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars unreasonable searches, requires police following an arrest to get court approval before a cellphone can be searched.
The cases are Riley v. California, 13-132 and U.S. v. Wurie, 13-212.