It seems kind of silly that we need a Supreme Court ruling to tell us that something’s illegal that’s already illegal. Any kind of warrantless search or seizure is illegal. It’s a violation of the 4th Amendment.
If police want to search your car, they’d better have a search warrant, which presupposes probable cause. If they want to search you, your house, or your cellphone, the same rule applies. It’s really quite simple.
But the reason there’s a fight about what kinds of searches and seizures are allowed without a warrant is that police are always wanting to search people’s things to find incriminating evidence so they can throw people in jail. You might get pulled over for a busted taillight, and a conversation like this might ensue:
Cop: We’re going to have to search your car.
You: All because I have a busted taillight?
Cop: Now you’re making me even more suspicious.
You: Well, you’re going to have to get a search warrant, because I’m not going to consent to any searches.
Cop: Oh, really? So what are you trying to hide? Guns? Drugs? Extremist right-wing literature?
Those hardly ever end well. You’d probably end up in jail for obstruction and resisting arrest.
They don’t want to play by the rules, because that takes too long. And they’re not afraid of a lawsuit, because they know that (in general) the judge will rule in their favor. It’s sort of like a president who doesn’t want to wait on Congress and issues executive orders to get around them. Sure, it’s illegal, but who’s going to win against the president?
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police must obtain warrants before snooping through people’s cellphones, delivering a unanimous decision that begins to update legal understanding of privacy rules to accommodate 21st-century technology.
Police agencies argued that searching through data on cellphones was no different from asking someone to turn out his pockets, but the justices rejected that, saying a cellphone holds the most personal and intimate details of someone’s life and falls squarely within the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections.
“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 Founders fought,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the unanimous opinion. “Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant.”
The justices even said police cannot check a cellphone’s call log because it could contain more information than phone numbers, and perusing the call log is a violation of privacy that can be justified only with a court-issued warrant.
The court did carve out exceptions for “exigencies” such as major security threats.
That last sentence probably indicates that things won’t change much. Police want to be able to search everything all the time, and when there are exceptions to the rules, they’ll find a way to use those exceptions. If they want to search your cellphone, they’ll appeal to the “exigency” clause and claim that you were a major security threat. They felt so threatened by you that they had no time to wait for a search warrant.