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Do You Have a Right to Cell Phone Privacy

If you ever take a moment to look around you at work, at the store, on the bus or even in your own home, chances are very good that you'll observe the characteristic posture of the smartphone user: head down, one hand held up, and the other hand busy scrolling or typing away.

Indeed, smartphones have become so ubiquitous and such a part of our lives that it's hard to imagine going more than a day without one in your pocket. Consider that statistics show that they roughly nine out of ten adults here in the U.S. own cellphones and that over half of these are smartphones. 

In light of this reality and the fact that our smartphones contain such a treasure trove of personal information, questions naturally arise as to the extent to which the Fourth Amendment protects you against unreasonable searches of your smartphone by law enforcement officials.

As it turns out, the Supreme Court of the United States addressed this very issue in a landmark decision issued this past summer.  

In Riley v. California, the court examined two separate police searches of suspects' phones conducted without a warrant. One case concerned a relatively simple search of a suspect's older model flip-phone by law enforcement officials in Massachusetts, while the other involved a sweeping search of a suspect's smartphone by law enforcement officials in California.

In a unanimous decision, the justices struck down the two searches as unconstitutional, holding that the Fourth Amendment dictates that law enforcement must secure a warrant before searching a suspect's phone and, by extension, other electronic devices containing sensitive personal information.   

"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," wrote Justice Roberts. "Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized (during) an arrest is accordingly simple -- get a warrant."

It should be noted, however, that SCOTUS did create an exemption to this warrant requirement, such that a phone can be searched without a warrant where there is an immediate threat to health and safety of another person, or that evidence will be destroyed.

In our next post, we'll examine some of the practical implications of Riley v. California.

Sources: USA Today, "Supreme Court limits police searches of cellphones," Richard Wolf, June 26, 2014; The San Jose Mercury News, "CHP photo scandal: When can police search your phone?" Matthias Gafni, October 2014

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