Supreme Court makes a good call protecting cellphone privacy

An astute U.S. Supreme Court ruling protects cellphone data.
An astute U.S. Supreme Court ruling protects cellphone data. The Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 9-0 ruling that police need a warrant to peruse a suspect’s cellphone is the correct resolution for legal tests that sought to balance the prerogatives of law enforcement with an individual’s right to privacy.

A cellphone can contain as much information as a desk drawer or file cabinet. If police need a warrant to search those repositories, they should also have to ask a judge for consent to search a cellphone, based on the probability that a suspect has been involved in a crime.

The same goes for tablets and laptop computers. Though not specifically mentioned in the opinion deciding Riley v. California, its reasoning will likely be found to apply to any device in which citizens store electronic data.

Cellphones, as Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his written opinion, are mini-computers that may also function as cameras, videorecorders, Rolodexes, calendars, libraries and diaries. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life,’” Roberts wrote.

The court acknowledged that the ruling will make police work more difficult. But it specified that previous rulings have permitted warrantless searches in emergency cases, and that leeway would extend to cellphones. If police think an abductor’s cellphone may contain information about a missing child’s location, for instance, they can make a case for searching the phone without a warrant.

Wise police agencies already seek warrants for electronic devices and shouldn’t have too much trouble adjusting to the new order.

The ruling should lend some momentum to an effort in Congress to require police to have a warrant before opening emails that are more than six months old. Known as the Email Privacy Act, the bill, authored by U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, would replace a 1986 law that allows emails to be accessed without a warrant.

On Aug. 5, Missouri voters will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment asserting that “people shall be secure in their electronic communications and data from unreasonable searches and seizures as they are now likewise secure in their persons, homes, papers and effects.”

Backers in the state legislature had wanted Missouri to set a national precedent. But the Supreme Court appears to have taken care of that with its careful opinion, which is preferable to a vague ballot question.