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.
(Additional highlights from Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion, after the jump.)
On the importance of cellphones today:
These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy….
Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person. The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.
On the many types of apps:
Mobile application software on a cell phone, or “apps,” offer a range of tools for managing detailed information about all aspects of a person’s life. There are apps for Democratic Party news and Republican Party news; apps for alcohol, drug, and gambling addictions; apps for sharing prayer requests; apps for tracking pregnancy symptoms; apps for planning your budget; apps for every con ceivable hobby or pastime; apps for improving your romantic life.
(Professor Josh Blackman wonders what the Chief Justice might be downloading.)
Finally, here is the Chief Justice on the trade-off between privacy and security:
We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.
The Chief’s opinion was joined in full by all the justices except for Justice Samuel Alito, who concurred in part and in the judgment. Justice Alito’s two issues:
First, I am not convinced at this time that the ancient rule on searches incident to arrest is based exclusively (or even primarily) on the need to protect the safety of arresting officers and the need to prevent the destruction of evidence….
[M]y second point. While I agree with the holding of the Court, I would reconsider the question presented here if either Congress or state legislatures, after assessing the legitimate needs of law enforcement and the privacy interests of cell phone owners, enact legislation that draws reasonable distinctions based on categories of information or perhaps other variables.
You can check out both opinions, which are exceedingly interesting, via the link below.