Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

A win for digital privacy

 

OUR OPINION: Supreme Court got it right: Cell phones off-limits without a warrant to search them

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

Every American’s privacy rights just got more secure, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a landmark ruling on Wednesday, the Court said our smartphones are as private as the very homes in which we live — and police officers will now need a warrant to snoop into them.

The justices — every last one of them, in a seldom-seen 9-0 ruling — recognized that in the 21st century, a cell phone, iPad or other tablet is not just a form of communication, but a storage place for messages, family photos, receipts and so much more information that’s personal. It’s like that drawer in the bureau in the hallway. It’s like an old-school Rolodex. It is a record of our daily lives and deeds, be they good or bad. And, the Court was right to rule, it should be private.

“The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote.

It’s a heartening affirmation for digital privacy in this age of NSA snooping, collected data and drones. It’s disappointing that the Justice Department fought against it, arguing that cell phones can be searched just like anything else carried by someone who’s arrested.

But the Court sided with reality: Cell phones today are as intimate as a family’s living room; we even sleep with them nearby. And when someone is suspected of running afoul of the law, cell phones should not be treated like purses, wallets or vehicles, which police have traditionally been allowed to search without a warrant.

In this sweeping opinion that affects just about every American, Justice Roberts wrote: “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.” The Court could not have grasped the issue more accurately or ruled more resolutely.

The Court rightly found that the old rules no longer account for the volumes of personal information stored on modern cell phones. In effect, the justices artfully applied 18-century principles of privacy to modern-day life.

The ruling stemmed from two cases involving instances in which law-enforcement officers scoured the cell phones of suspects in custody and then used information to pursue additional charges.

In David Riley v. California, police stopped Mr. Riley in 2009 for a traffic violation.

Police found loaded guns in his car and, after going through his Samsung, found evidence indicating he was associated with a gang. He was ultimately charged in connection with a shooting unrelated to the initial traffic stop.

His status as a gang member — culled from his cell phone — allowed prosecutors to enhance his sentence from 15 years to life in prison.

In United States v. Wurie, the suspect ended up in prison after police seized his phone during a failed drug deal.

They traced a contact saved on his device labeled “My Home” back to his residence where narcotics were then seized.

Although getting criminals off the street is the overriding goal, this type of evidence-gathering has been rejected — it’s fruit from the poisonous tree.

Justice Roberts realized the ruling might make it more difficult for police and prosecutors to combat crime and that a slew of appeals might result.

“Privacy comes at a cost,” he wrote. He’s absolutely right.

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