EDITORIAL: A warrant should be required for police search of cellphones

April 30, 2014 

Will the nation's highest court do the right thing and keep our privacy rights in sync with today's technology?

We'll soon find out when the Supreme Court rules on two cases it heard Tuesday on whether police need warrants to search the cellphones of people they arrest. The justices need to put limits on what authorities can do with smartphones.

The Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures goes back to our founding fathers. But police don't need a warrant to search people they arrest. This is to protect officers and to prevent evidence from being destroyed.

Such leeway for law enforcement looks far different today, when what can be found on smartphones is so extensive -- records of calls, text messages, Web browsing histories, photos, videos and all sorts of information that the government shouldn't be able to see without good reason.

Police groups are lined up on one side, privacy advocates on the other. Based on justices' questions and comments during oral arguments, some observers believe that the justices may seek a middle ground, where warrants would be required for some kinds of cellphone searches.

Lower courts have been divided on whether the old rules should apply to the new, far more powerful devices.

One of the two cases heard Tuesday came from California. In 2009, David L. Riley was pulled over in San Diego for having an expired car registration. As they had the legal right to do, police searched the car and discovered loaded guns as well as items suggesting gang membership. They also looked at his smartphone and found texts with apparent gang symbols. A deeper search of the phone led to information that linked Riley to a shooting; he was later convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years to life.

In the second case before the high court, a federal appeals court threw out the warrantless search of the flip phone of a man arrested in Boston in 2007 for buying crack cocaine. Police used it to link him to guns and more drugs, and he was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

In February, a Texas appeals court suppressed evidence found on the phone of a high school student arrested for causing a disturbance on a school bus. "Searching a person's cellphone is like searching his home desk, computer, bank vault and medicine cabinet all at once," the court said.

That's about right -- and the Supreme Court must recognize that new reality in the digital age.

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