The Right To Privacy In Your Smartphone

Throughout the years, the Supreme Court of the United States has issued rulings which have reflected the sentiments in society based on the ideological leanings of the Justices.  When Presidents appoint Justices, they do so in hopes that the Court can be reshaped with their own views.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to pack the court in the late 1930’s in hopes of staving off any constitutional challenges to the programs that he was passing, a tactic which ultimately failed. Most decisions issued by the Court have little practical application to the society at large; however, when a case affects a basic right of a citizen, the ruling is crucial.  On Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling which widens the privacy rights of all citizens.


The right to privacy is not mentioned anywhere in the United States Constitution.  It is a right which has evolved through numerous Court decisions, relying on various Amendments, sometimes simple phrases in the document. One of the more basic rights listed specifically in the Constitution is the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.  Anyone who has watched the multitude of legal shows, or seen any number of movies which deal with legal issues, knows that the police cannot search your home without first obtaining a warrant.   The police must first obtain a warrant from a Judge to institute any search of your person or property.

This application must be reasonable based on solid evidence and facts leading to probable cause that a crime has been committed. However, many people do not know that there is an exception to the warrant requirement when you are arrested.  Previously, the Supreme Court has ruled that when a person is arrested, a search of the person or nearby area can occur without a warrant.   This limited exception allows the police to examine a criminal suspect’s person, pockets, wallet, bags, purses, briefcase, as well as a vehicle, or the immediate area if arrested in a home or business.   The Court ruled this immediate search is valid to ensure police safety and prevent any evidence being destroyed.

The Constitution has been consistently evaluated and analyzed by the Supreme Court as society has evolved, especially with the numerous advancements in technology.   In our modern society, everyone seems to have some mobile device, a cell phone, Smartphone, or tablet.   Initially, the cell phone was a simple a way to make phone calls on the go.  As the devices expanded, they now contain data covering a wide array of subjects, including stored texts, videos, calendars, and other pertinent and revenant information for a person’s life. If you ask certain individuals, they will say their whole life is stored on their Smartphone, a device small enough to carry in a bag or pocket.   Anytime you are stopped by the police, or arrested, they will discover the Smartphone.  The question is whether they can examine the Smartphone and its contents.


In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the police could not search, or examine, a Smartphone, cell phone, or other similar electronic device, without first obtaining a warrant.  The decision arose based on two cases, one from Massachusetts and one from California.  In both cases, the police searched the suspect’s phone and obtained texts, messages, videos, photographs, addresses, phone numbers, and other vital information enabling them to link the suspects to drug and gang activity.   The Court concluded the fact the information can now be stored and saved on a mobile device does not eliminate its need for protection from illegal searches.   Before searching an electronic device seized during a lawful arrest, the police must get a warrant.

With the use of electronic mobile devices so prevalent in our country, the trial courts have struggled with the issue of applying the long standing rule of allowing a search incident to an arrest of such devices. In one of the cases under appeal, the suspect was first detained for having an expired registration.  A subsequent legal search of the impounded vehicle revealed loaded weapons.  Based on this the suspect was arrested, which lead to a lawful search turning up a Smartphone.   The police examined the Smartphone and found photographs texts, messages, and other information which linked the suspect to organized gang activity, of which he was subsequently convicted.

In the other matter, the suspect was arrested for selling crack cocaine.  Upon arrest, a legal search revealed an old styled flip phone.  In the phone, the police were able to discover the suspect’s real address, as opposed to a fake address the suspect supplied to the cops.  Using this address, and after obtaining a warrant based on this information, the police located more drugs and evidence of criminal activity in the home, leading to a conviction.   The police did not obtain a warrant in either case to search the electronic devices.  One appeals court upheld the conviction, the other overturned the conviction.  This caused the Supreme Court to accept the appeals to address the issue.

This ruling places in doubt the convictions of other criminal suspects on information obtained from electronic devices.  It is unclear what will happen to these cases on appeal.  It is clear that the Supreme Court is acknowledging the advances in technology with this ruling.  The decision clearly states that the information stored in a Smartphone is worthy of protection under the Constitution, no matter where it may be located.


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