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Privacy rights favored in recent SCOTUS ruling on cellphone searches

Today’s digital technology is continuously posing a challenge for authorities. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court recently provided clarification on the constitutional search and seizure of a cellphone.

The expeditious advancement of digital technology today is continuously posing a challenge for authorities, particularly when it comes to lawful constitutional searches and seizures of electronic property. Fortunately, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has provided clarification on one of the biggest legal issues authorities have been tackling for years: the lawful search of a cellphone.

The court ruling dealt a major blow to authorities who were hoping for a favorable ruling. Instead, the court ruled that police do in fact need to obtain a warrant before searching a person’s smartphone.

Understanding the 4th amendment protections

Among different provisions, the 4th amendment of the United States Constitution states that people are free from unreasonable searches and seizures of their property by government authorities.

This essentially means that authorities cannot simply search a person or property without first obtaining a warrant. But, there are exceptions to this rule however; courts allow warrantless searches in certain instances, such as the search of a purse or wallet.

In a case that landed in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, authorities were hoping for a ruling that would put smartphones in this same warrantless category.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling

Petitioners argued that since authorities are presently allowed to seize and search a person’s wallet, purse, or address book without a warrant, seizing a suspect’s cellphone should be no different.

But SCOTUS disagreed.

According to Chief Justice John Roberts, “modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.”

In fact, the court indicated that a cellphone search is even more intrusive than the search of a person’s home-a search where a warrant is required in a majority of instances.

“A cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house: A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form – unless the phone is,” he stated.

The ruling is a win for civil rights advocates, but it’s important to note that, it is not black and white. Like other instances, a warrant can be sidestepped if, for instance, exigent circumstances exist such as when there’s a danger to an officer’s safety or there is cause to believe evidence is about to be destroyed.


Some argue that the ruling will no doubt make it difficult for authorities to truly combat crime in today’s 21 century digital world. And Justice Roberts agreed. But he also stated that it didn’t trump an individual’s right to privacy. Challenging law enforcement procedures, he essentially said, is no excuse to circumvent the warrant requirement.

Further rulings relating to 4th amendment protections will no doubt come down the pipeline as technological advancements continue. It remains to be seen what future precedents will be set.

Keywords: cellphone search, warrant, Supreme Court ruling

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