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Supreme Court’s landmark ruling bars warrantless search of cell phones

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has decided that police may no longer search the contents of suspects' cell phones without a warrant.

On Wednesday, justices came to the unanimous decision on the Riley v. California case, which stems from the 2009 arrest of a San Diego man, David Riley, who was convicted of attempted murder after police searched his smartphone.

According to a 38-page court opinion [PDF] filed Wednesday, justices agreed that “modern cell phones are not just another technical convenience,” but a device giving law enforcement access to far more information than other physical evidence carried on a person, such as a wallet or purse.

“One of the most notable distinguishing features of modern cell phones is their immense storage capacity,” the ruling said. “Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and tended as a general matter to constitute only a narrow intrusion of privacy.”

In a Thursday interview with, Hanni Fakhoury, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said that the justices' decision offered thoughtful language about the “ability of technology to hold onto all of this information we have [on cell phones], whether emails, pictures or videos.”

“That triggers a strong need to have privacy [safeguards] on that data, and the ruling will have an impact on privacy cases to come,” Fakhoury added.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court also touched on the evolving privacy implications of cell phones as time, and technology, progresses.

“Even the most basic phones that sell for less than $20 might hold photographs, picture messages, text messages, internet browsing history, a calendar, a thousand-entry phone book, and so on… We expect that the gulf between physical practicability and digital capacity will only continue to widen in the future,” the court opinion said.

Fakhoury added that the EFF was “pleasantly surprised” by the ruling, since it was also anticipated that the Supreme Court might strike a “middle ground,” allowing warrantless police searches of cell phones to occur in some scenarios.

“But instead, they made a very strong ruling,” Fakhoury said.

On Wednesday, another privacy rights group, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), weighed in on the breakthrough ruling. Steven Shapiro, national legal director of the ACLU, called the decision “revolutionary” via a statement, in recognizing that the "digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy.”

“We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognized, our old values still apply and limit the government's ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives,” Shapiro said.

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