'Get a Warrant': John Roberts Gives the Cops a Benchslap in Riley v. California

Credit: C-SpanCredit: C-SpanThe Fourth Amendment protects our "persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Today, in the case of Riley v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that this constitutional protection extends to the cellphones we carry around with us, even when the police have placed us under arrest and would like to search those cellphones without a warrant in the hopes of finding some incriminating evidence. "Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple," declared Chief Justice John Roberts, "get a warrant."

It's a welcome decision and a well-deserved victory for digital privacy. It's also a stinging benchslap for the Obama administration and the other parties who lined up in favor of aggressive law enforcement tactics in this case. For example, according to one legal filing submitted by the Obama administration, "Although cell phones can contain a great deal of personal information, so can many other items that officers have long had authority to search, and the search of a cell phone is no more intrusive than other actions that the police may take once a person has been lawfully arrested." Translation: The Fourth Amendment should not apply.

But the problem with that boundless view of government power is that it would give the police free rein to access the emails, texts, photos, videos, and GPS tracking data of each and every person that has been placed under arrest, including those persons arrested for minor crimes such as jaywalking. What's more, as the chief justice observed in his opinion, "a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house," since unprecedented amounts of private information is now available at the touch of a cellphone screen or button.

As for the government's claim that a warrantless cellphone search is "materially indistinguishable" from the sort of warrantless physical searches that the police are allowed to do in order to locate hidden weapons, Roberts was equally dismissive. "That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon," he quipped. "Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together."

The whole point of the Fourth Amendment is to safeguard the citizenry against government snooping, meddling, and overreaching. Today, the Supreme Court gave the Fourth Amendment its due and put it to precisely that use in Riley v. California.

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  • R C Dean||

    Good decision, but he's still miles away from being rehabilitated for rewriting and upholding ObamaCare. For that, I think he's the worst Justice on the Court.

  • Marshall Gill||

    That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon

    Or like saying that calling something a "penaltax" makes it materially different from a tax?

    Fuck John Roberts with a rusty chainsaw.

  • ||

    Where was this John Roberts when they were ruling on obumblecare?

    I am glad for this ruling, but seriously, fuck this guy.

  • DJF||

    Roberts owns a cell phone and dosn't want the police knowing who he is calling while his health care is already paid for by the government so he does not care if you or I have to pay a penilty tax

  • John||

    And if the conspiracy theories are to be believed, he understands the danger of the government prying into your personal life.

  • John||

    "Although cell phones can contain a great deal of personal information, so can many other items that officers have long had authority to search, and the search of a cell phone is no more intrusive than other actions that the police may take once a person has been lawfully arrested.

    The government's brief on this is just laughable. Think about that paragraph for a moment. They are saying that since cell phones probably contain information that is normally obtainable without a warrant as part of a search incident to arrest, they should be able to search the entire cell phone. By that logic, a cop who comes to your house after your car is stolen should be able to rifle through all of your dresser drawers since those drawers might contain contraband that he would ordinarily be able to seize without a warrant if they were in plain sight.

    Since they have no shame and are generally retarded, it won't stop them but the Obama Administration should end any Prog claiming that Democratic Administrations are better about civil liberties. I honestly don't think even John Yoo would have been able to make this argument with a straight face.

  • ||

    You sound shocked at their hubris.
    How is this any different than any other argument this gaggle of shitheads has made? It is the hallmark of this administration. They are a goddamn freakshow.

  • Barsoomian||

    Oh, I think John Yoo would have been able to.

  • sarcasmic||

    So now the cops will search the phones anyway, and if they find something they like they'll call their favorite pet judge to rubber stamp a warrant. The report of course will say they got the warrant first, and nothing else will happen. Big deal.

  • Paul.||

    While I agree with this in spirit, apparently law enforcement thought it was a big deal. So let them struggle with the big dealness of it.

  • Homple||

    Here's where training in parallel construction of evidence becomes a growing industry.

  • Kure'i||

    Yes, after reading the opinion a couple of times, I'm pretty sure it only will bar the warrantless evidence from being used at trial. It'll probably be fine for impeachment purposes at other hearings, or for sentencing, for supplying information to other enforcement agencies, or for a whole host of other unsavory uses.

    And they'll just continue searching them anyway, because even in the worst case scenario, they just can't use the additional info they've learned, but can still use everything leading to the arrest. Which, combined with the confessions the majority of defendants make to the cops, is already enough to secure a guilty plea before the appointed attorney even speaks to the accused.

  • AlgerHiss||

    What’s even worse, most people will respond with a timid “no” when presented with that usual question of “You wouldn’t mind if I look in your cell phone, would you?”

    It is both sad and dangerous that so many have no clue about their legal rights. And this is precisely how cops want to keep things.

  • sarcasmic||

    Even if you refuse consent, it's standard procedure to do the search anyway and lie about it on the report and in court.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    password protect your cellphones.

  • croaker||

    Passwords do no good. Police are buying equipment that bypass password protections.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Two cheers for Justice Roberts. He may suck up to the US ruling class 80% of the time, but at least he doesn't like busybody cops.

  • retiredfire||

    As one interested in consistency - I know, a forlorn idea - I have to wonder: if a warrant is needed to search one's cell phone, even if a lawful arrest is made, then why doesn't that extend to one's vehicle, where the lawful arrest gives free rein to LEOs to go through every nook and cranny?
    Just askin'.

  • Kure'i||

    The text of the opinion gives explanation of why the motor vehicle exception doesn't apply to cell phones: no exigent circumstances, and no officer danger.

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