THE framers of America’s constitution knew nothing about mobile phones, but they knew a thing or two about unreasonable searches. In Riley v California, the Supreme Court considered “whether the police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.” Unanimously on June 25th, the justices said no—or, to be more precise, very rarely.
David Riley, a member of the Bloods street gang who was sentenced to 15 years to life for attempted murder, and Brima Wurie, serving 262 months on a drug charge, will be happy to hear this. Except in true emergencies where searching a mobile phone could, say, avert a terrorist attack, police prying without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment’s bar on “unreasonable” searches, the justices decided. Since both Mr Riley and Mr Wurie’s convictions were based on evidence gleaned from such searches, they will be freed earlier than expected.
Chief Justice John Roberts began by observing how attached Americans have become to their mobile devices: “the proverbial visitor from Mars,” he wrote, might mistake them for “an important feature of human anatomy”. Smartphones can contain “[t]he sum of an individual’s private life…from the mundane to the intimate.” In fact, the ruling reads, thumbing through a mobile phone is potentially far more revealing than “the most exhaustive search of a house.” Without the benefit of “more precise guidance from the founding era,” Mr Roberts explained, the court must weigh individual privacy against “the promotion of legitimate governmental interests”. And since it is usually easy to grab a suspect’s phone, remove its battery or stash it in an aluminium sack (to avert “remote wiping”) and hold onto it pending a warrant, there is no good reason to allow police to rifle through the digital lives of anyone they pull over.