The Supreme Court made a revolutionary ruling today in the area of personal privacy. Chief Justices unanimously ruled that police may not search a person's cellular phone incident to arrest without a warrant from a judge.
The "search incident to arrest" rule was established in 1973 by then-Justice William H. Rehnquist. It's been the court's long-standing view that police can search someone who was stopped on the street or in his car and put under arrest. Officers could check a suspect's pockets and examine his possessions, including his wallet or purse. The intent behind the rule was to allow police to protect themselves in case they found weapons on the suspect. Police were also free to collect evidence such as drugs, stolen goods or papers that might lead them to other suspects.
John G. Roberts succeeded Rehnquist as chief justice in 2005 and in Wednesday's opinion, Roberts said that Rehnquist's "categorical rule" for allowing the police to freely search "physical objects" did not make sense when those items were electronic devices such as smartphones. These devices contain vast amounts of private and personal information and a search of such devices would "bear little resemblance to the type of brief physical search" upheld in Rehnquist's 1973 opinion. Therefore, the Justices declined to "extend (the older decision) to searches of data on cell phones and hold instead that officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search."
Roberts said that because digital devices have transformed how people live, they must also transform the law on privacy. Police may still examine "the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon." But once secured, "data on the phone can endanger no one" and the arrested person will not be able to "delete incriminating data."