New Castle News


June 26, 2014

Our Opinion: Supreme Court limits police access to cellphones

NEW CASTLE — This week’s Supreme Court decision requiring search warrants before police seize cellphones came as a shock.

It wasn’t the ruling itself that surprised. To the contrary, we viewed it as perfectly appropriate.

Rather, the shocking part was the fact the court ruled 9-0 in the case. We can’t remember the last time the court issued a unanimous ruling on such an important matter.

And this is important. As Chief Justice John Robert said in writing for the court, “Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life.”

Consider, for a moment, what’s on your cellphone or those owned by people you know. It’s not just telephone numbers. It’s not just messages and texts. It’s not just personal photos.

Today’s cellphones may contain information on all aspects of the personal lives of owners. Smartphones will hold data on websites visited, passwords, emails and items purchased. They are not simply innocuous objects people happen to have in their pockets.

Would you or anyone else want all this information collected by the government?

This is why we wonder how there was ever any question law enforcement would need a warrant to confiscate and examine the contents of a cellphone. It’s so obviously the sort of search and seizure that requires a warrant, as outlined by the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

In his ruling, Roberts noted that prohibiting automatic searches of cellphones could hamper law enforcement. But as he pointed out, “Privacy comes at a cost.”

America, as a society, long ago determined that individual freedom and liberty, free of the prying eyes of authority, is a value worth protecting.

And while police may encounter roadblocks in their investigations because of this ruling, it’s hardly a death knell for effective law enforcement. Officers still can obtain warrants to search cellphones if they have probable cause.

Although this ruling was unanimous, Justice Samuel Alito wrote separately to argue that, ultimately, it should be lawmakers, rather than judges, who craft privacy protections when it comes to new technology and cultural shifts.

That may be so in some cases, but we contend the main standards were set by the nation’s founders. To suggest modern legislatures are the go-to folks in crafting civil liberties isn’t particularly persuasive.

Still, this discussion serves as a reminder that while the courts have restricted police access to cellphones, Internet firms have the ability to gather all sorts of data on users.

Your information may be private from police. But with the rest of the world, it’s another matter entirely.

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