The nation's highest court made a powerful statement Wednesday for protecting our privacy rights in the digital age, ruling unanimously that police must get warrants to search the cellphones of people they arrest.
Police have long been granted exceptions to the constitutional ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures" to protect themselves and to prevent evidence from being destroyed.
Correctly, the Supreme Court said those exceptions shouldn't apply to smartphones, which are amazingly versatile minicomputers that can store extensive and intimate details of our existence — text messages, histories of Internet searches, photos, videos and more. Just think about what's on your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy that is perfectly legal but that you wouldn't want the government to see without a very good reason.
Smartphones "are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the ruling.
He acknowledged that the decision will make the job of law enforcement somewhat more difficult, but wrote, "Privacy comes at a cost."
In seeking the right balance, this is the right decision — and the fact there was no dissent among the nine justices makes it all the more emphatic.
It resonates loudly in California, which is home to Apple, Google and other tech companies that are deeply invested in smartphones and that employ thousands of people in this state.
Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, said he will introduce legislation next year to make sure the new standards are clearly outlined in California law. He authored a similar bill in 2011, which the Legislature approved but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
"If you keep these sensitive and extremely personal records in your desk at home, it could not be accessed by law enforcement without a warrant, but mobile phones have not been protected in the same manner," Leno said in a statement.
One of the two cases decided Wednesday came from San Diego, where a man was pulled over in 2009 for having an expired car registration. Police searched the car and found guns, and also pored over his cellphone and uncovered information tying him to a shooting for which he was later sentenced to 15 years to life. The California Court of Appeal ruled for the police, the state Supreme Court declined to review the case and Attorney General Kamala Harris also said the search was legal.
Echoing the U.S. Justice Department, her office said that smartphones should be viewed in the same light as wallets, purses and address books that are subject to examination by police.
Roberts wasn't buying that comparison. "That is like saying a ride on horseback is not materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon," he wrote, sending the case back to state courts for reconsideration.
The Roberts court is divided between conservative and liberal factions on many controversial subjects. It is noteworthy and welcome that on this major issue — where technology continually tests the boundaries of the law — the high court is united in standing up for fundamental privacy rights.