Get a warrant
A person's cellphone is entitled to as much privacy protection as his house.
The U.S. Supreme Court doesn't deserve thundering applause when it makes an obviously correct decision. Still, this week's unanimous 9-0 decision that police must get a warrant before searching a suspect's cellphone is a welcome victory against an increasingly intrusive state.
Given the vast stores of information contained in a cellphone these days, it's not too much to ask police to demonstrate probable cause to believe that a crime has occurred before they rummage through such an information-laden communications device.
In separate cases out of California and Massachusetts involving warrantless searches of cellphones, the Obama administration argued police officers should be free to examine a suspect's cellphone just as they are free to go through a suspect's pockets to seize evidence or a weapon. But writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said comparing a cellphone carried by a suspect with a pack of cigarettes in a suspect's shirt pocket is simply not an apt analogy.
"With all that they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life," Roberts said.
His conclusion is inarguable. Today's cellphones have morphed into what could more accurately be called hand-held computers with telephone capabilities. Their uses are growing exponentially, and there's no reason authorities should not be required to get a warrant to search a cellphone just as they would get a warrant to search a house or obtain business records.
Technological advances continue to raise questions of law inconceivable 20 or 30 years ago. But the court's decision rests on the bedrock constitutional right that an individual's privacy, whether it be in his home or business or even his cellphone, cannot be breached without sufficient legal cause. That all nine justices embraced that concept reflects the broad base of support for the notion of keeping the government off the people's back.