The Supreme Court issued a far-reaching defense of digital privacy in a landmark ruling Wednesday, blocking law enforcement officials from searching cell phones without a warrant at the scene of an arrest or after—except in cases of extraordinary and specific danger, like child abduction or the threat of a terrorist attack.
In broad language, Chief Justice John Roberts carved out protections for privacy in the digital age, saying that “more substantial privacy interests are at stake when digital data is involved” than in the past, in part because a cell phone collects “in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record.”
The decision overruled two lower courts and was unanimous.
Law enforcement officials are still free to search the immediate area of an arrest to ensure their safety and protect evidence without a warrant. Police can also seek a warrant to search a cell phone from an arrested suspect. But the decision is notable because the court has struggled in past cases to define clear and broad rules where digital technology and constitutional rights collided.
“There was a real prospect that the Court would split the baby in the cell phone cases,” wrote Tom Goldstein, a member of the Supreme Court bar, on his website, SCOTUSBlog, in the wake of the ruling. “But the Court instead articulated a bright line rule that is much clearer and will be much easier to administer in practice.”
The language used by Roberts regarding the ability of cell phones to collect vast amounts of information in one place will encourage those who believe that Americans have greater expectations of privacy from government intrusion for the vast amounts of digital data they produce every day. “The broad language in today’s opinion in protecting digital privacy may prove significant for NSA surveillance,” wrote Goldstein.
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