In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court
said there are some emergency situations in which a warrantless
search would be permitted. But the unanimous 9-0 ruling goes against
law enforcement agencies including the U.S. Department of Justice,
which wanted more latitude to search without having to obtain a
"We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the
ability of law enforcement to combat crime," Roberts wrote, adding
that the right to privacy "comes at a cost."
Roberts acknowledged the unique nature of cellphones in contemporary
life, noting that "the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude
they were an important feature of human anatomy."
"The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such
information in his hand does not make the information any less
worthy of the protection for which the (country's) Founders fought.
Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a
cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple - get a
warrant," Roberts wrote.
The ruling could have a major impact in some jurisdictions because
law enforcement agencies have increasingly made cellphones searches
a top priority when a suspect is arrested, said Bronson James, a
criminal defense attorney in Portland, Oregon.
"Police wanted the data on the cellphones because it was so
expansive," he said. "This stops that practice."
The implications may be limited by the fact that police can benefit
from new technology: it is now possible to obtain a warrant more
quickly using mobile devices to send the request.
The ruling could hamper law enforcement when there is a need to
gather information from a cellphone immediately because of an
ongoing criminal enterprise, said Robert Mintz, a former federal
prosecutor. "There could be circumstances when news of an arrest can
travel quickly and time could be of the essence," he said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Ellen Canale said the government
would ensure federal law enforcement agents complied with the
The court was considering two separate cases pitting evolving
expectations of privacy against the interests of the law enforcement
community as the justices for the first time weighed the ubiquitous
role of cellphones in modern life.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found 60.7 percent of people surveyed
said police should not be allowed to search cellphones without a
Cellphones, initially used purely to make calls, now contain a
wealth of personal information about the owner including
photographs, video and social media content. A 2013 Pew Research
Center report said 91 percent of adult Americans have a cellphone,
more than a half of them smartphones that can connect to the
[to top of second column]
Concern about increasing government encroachment on personal
privacy, especially relating to electronic communications, has
surged in the past year after disclosures by former National
Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about government
Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney at the Electronic
Frontier Foundation digital rights group, said the court's
recognition of the impact of new technology on privacy "will have
important implications for future legal challenges concerning the
government’s use of technology," including NSA surveillance.
The defendants challenging their convictions, David Riley and Brima
Wurie, said evidence found on their phones should not have been used
at trial because the searches were conducted without court-issued
The circumstances in the two cases, one from Massachusetts and one
from California, were different in terms of the scope of the search
and the type of cellphone used. Wurie had a basic flip phone while
Riley had a more sophisticated smartphone.
The court decided the two cases together, finding that both searches
The legal question was whether the U.S. Constitution's Fourth
Amendment, barring unreasonable searches, requires police following
an arrest to get court approval before a cellphone can be searched.
Riley was convicted of three charges relating to a 2009 San Diego
incident in which shots were fired at an occupied vehicle.
Prosecutors linked him to the crime in part based on a photograph
police found on his smartphone. Police searched Wurie's cellphone
without a warrant after his 2007 arrest for suspected drug dealing.
Officers used the device, which was not a smartphone, to find a
phone number that took them to Wurie's house in Boston, where drugs,
a gun and cash were found.
The cases are Riley v. California, 13-132 and U.S. v. Wurie, 13-212.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Grant
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