WASHINGTON — In a sweeping victory for privacy rights in the digital age, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that the police need warrants to search the cell phones of people they arrest. (Adam Liptak, New York Times June 25)
Wow! Although I am quite pleased with this decision, I’m shocked that the 9 individuals, who make up the highest court in the Nation, could actually come to the same conclusion! Maybe it’s because each one of them have a smart phone that contains a great deal of their private and personal information.
A 2013 study shows that 92 percent of adults in the U.S. have some sort of a cell phone and 85 percent have a ‘smart phone’ with access to the internet, email and who knows what else. The reality is that our cell phones have become something more than a simple ‘telephone’. (do we even use the term telephone anymore?)
My ‘smart phone’ is a portable file cabinet; it contains my calendar, my contacts, my clock and alarm for when I travel, various notes to remind me of certain electronic formulas (yep I’m a geek), pictures that are special to me, music to listen to when I’m traveling and a bunch of other stuff that I have no idea how it got there! I’m not sure if my social security number is in my phone, but certainly my birth date is, along with a few different passwords, for access to email, Facebook and who know what else. In other words, the digital age has combined with the miniaturization of electronics to allow me to pack around a 4 drawer filing cabinet and several other items…..all contained in one device.
Because the Bill of Rights did not initially apply to the states, and federal criminal investigations were less common in the first century of the ation's history, there is little significant case law for the Fourth Amendment before the 20th century. The amendment was held to apply to the states in Mapp v. Ohio (1961). Since ‘Mapp’, due care and consideration has been the law, even if sometimes overzealous law enforcement officials and legislators violate the intent of the amendment.
In the recent case ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, launches us further into the digital age, inasmuch as the cell phone is now considered under the same protection as my 4 drawer file cabinet or my computer. To view things inside of those items requires my permission or a duly authorized ‘search warrant’.
However, as I don’t have anything stored in my file cabinet, computer or cell phone that is criminal or important to law enforcement, I’m not as concerned as maybe the 12 million criminals that are referred to in the Courts decision.
The reality is a warrant may not be the useful tool that law enforcement thinks it is. I've met many of the folks who obtain warrants; I have also looked for days to find something I thought I stored on my smart phone and never found what I was looking for; if they think they can find something, they're better geeks than me. Is the search warrant an automatic key to the mysteries stored within? If it is, the next time I’m looking for a text message sent to me by my son, I’ll take the phone to the local Police Department or I’ll call the NSA.
By the way, does the NSA need a search warrant?