A constitutional right enters the digital age

A constitutional right enters the digital age

A sweeping and unanimous ruling.

Cell phone.
Cell phone. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Pool

In a sweeping and unanimous ruling Wednesday requiring police to obtain a search warrant before checking the data on a cellphone, the U.S. Supreme Court wisely extended bulwark constitutional privacy protections into the digital age.

At a time when the nation’s highest court seems increasingly polarized along partisan lines, libertarian and liberal justices found common ground in our cherished Fourth Amendment right, which guards our civil liberties from unfettered intrusion by the government.

The decision acknowledges what we all know — that smartphones and portable devices such as tablets contain the vast and essential DNA of our lives: whom we meet, what we read, what we write, where we go and whom we call.

In separate cases of a San Diego man stopped for a traffic violation and a Boston man observed in a drug sale, both defendants were charged with more serious crimes after police accessed their cellphones and found incriminating photos, videos and call logs. Federal and state law-enforcement authorities argued that checking digital data before obtaining a warrant was necessary to stop suspects from destroying evidence through remote wiping or data encryption.

While conceding there could be emergency exceptions for digital data, just as there are for a gun within a suspect’s reach, the court said exposure of what was contained in a cellphone was more invasive than the searching of homes that colonists worried about under British rule.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “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. 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.”

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