In a rare unanimous ruling today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police must normally obtain a search warrant before searching the contents of your cell phone, even if you have been placed under arrest. Police departments had argued that searching a cell phone was no different than asking a suspect to empty his or her pockets. In the past, the court has generally said that a person’s privacy rights are greatly reduced after an arrest. Police may search a person who’s been arrested to look for weapons, or for evidence that might be destroyed.

But the Court ruled that searching a cell phone is equivalent to allowing the police to ransack a person’s home, looking for any information that might implicate a subject. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote

“… 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,”

such as an individual’s location history.

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“There are apps for Democratic Party news and Republican Party news; apps for alcohol, drug and gambling addictions; apps for sharing prayer requests; apps for tracking pregnancy systems; apps for planning your budget; apps for every conceivable hobby or pastime; apps for improving your romantic life,”

the Chief Justice wrote.

There have been numerous cases in both the state and federal courts on this topic, with decisions favoring both police and privacy advocates. The Supreme Court has finally settled the issue, in no uncertain terms.

The court did rule that police can take steps to ensure that the information on the phone is not erased or lost. Presumably, they can take it from an arrestee and check it in as evidence. But search warrants are typically limited in scope, and specify exactly what the police may search for. So if police find evidence of something unrelated to the particular search warrant, they would not be able to make use of that information.

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