There are signs of hope that the Supreme Court will return to its check and balance role of the Constitutional era.

One such sign, directly addressing the Fourth Amendment (the Court also just issued a ruling determining the procedures for challenging one’s inclusion in the No-Fly list are unconstitutional, another hopeful sign) is a recent opinion that the police cannot search the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant.

Good news? Maybe.

The Supreme Court Recognizes Tech Affects the Fourth Amendment

Prior to this decision in the case of Riley v. California by the Supreme Court on June 25, 2014, law enforcement held that if they arrested someone, say for a simple traffic offense, they had the right to examine the full contents of his or her cell phone– call lists, photos, social media, contact, whatever was on the device, what one writer called a “montage of the user’s life.” Police traditionally have searched physical objects they find on an arrestee without a warrant, typically with the rationale that such searches were for the protection of the officers (Got a gun in that backpack?) In the case that was before the Court, a traffic stop for one man ended up with him in jail for other alleged crimes based on the contents of his phone. The Court combined the Riley case with a similar one in its decision.

The Court acknowledged that cell phones today represent far more than a “physical object.” The information they hold is a portrait of someone’s life, the same as a closet at home, or a computer sitting on your desk. Searches of those locations almost always require a warrant, and now, so will searches of your cell phone if you are arrested. An exception exists for “exigent circumstances,” such as the infamous ticking time bomb scenario where a terrorist with knowledge of an imminent attack is arrested. An legitimate exigent circumstance might also include a child kidnapper caught running a red light, whose phone might reveal the location of his victim. Common sense, if not abused by the cops.

(As background, the Supreme Court flirted with these issues about two years ago in ruling against warrantless use of GPS tracking devices by the police. In U.S. v. Jones the Court stated “GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations” and thus violates a person’s expectation of privacy.)

Bad News

Does this matter when talking about the NSA’s and the FBI’s technological dragnet? Maybe. Some suggest that law enforcement will work around the new restrictions by seeking perfunctory, expedited warrants automatically for each arrest, or through the use of technologies such as Stingray, which can electronically gather cell conversations without warrant. Stingray can also be used to track a person’s movements without a warrant, negating the old-school GPS devices the Supreme Court declared require a warrant.

Good News

On the positive side, while the Supreme Court decision on cell phone searches applies directly to street-level law enforcement, it does suggest an evolution within the Court that recognizes the way advances in technology have changed the Fourth Amendment. A cell phone is not an object anymore; it is recognized as a portal to other information that a person has gathered in one place for convenience with, as of this decision, a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The hope now is that future Court cases will take the “new” concept that using a cell phone creates a reasonable expectation of privacy, and enlarge that to cover more of American’s digital lives. Can you hear us now NSA?



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Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from from Amazon.