It is so ordered, they said. “Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is … simple—get a warrant.”
As many have now heard, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that police may not search the digital contents of the minicomputers and life-storage lockers we walk around with all day just because they’ve arrested you. To do that, the Court said, they have to apply for permission—that is, apply for a warrant—from a neutral magistrate (that is, a designated judicial officer) who is detached from the “often competitive enterprise” of law enforcement. Checks and balances, in other words; trust but verify, because the constable can’t check himself. The system needs a second set of eyes, as we’ve covered here before. For the post that previewed the arguments in this case, see here.
The Court acknowledged that its decision would cause delay, but it observed that privacy comes at a cost. So do many other constitutional values, one might add. Besides, police can still rely on the exception for exigent circumstances in cases of emergency, and besides that, technology has eased the process of obtaining warrants in most circumstances. But the process still matters.