EDITORIAL: Supreme Court decision brings the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century

June 27, 2014 

In a world where we have become accustomed to 5-4 decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday’s 9-0 ruling was somewhat of a surprise. On the surface it seems simple: Law enforcement will have to attain a warrant before they can search a person’s cellphone -- and by implication -- the ruling would also apply to tablets and laptop computers.

The court has recognized that technology has invaded everyone’s life, and as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court, saying that cellphones are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of the human anatomy.”

Roberts didn’t have to go far in reaching that conclusion. A quick walk down First Street Northeast in front of the high court would yield scores of people checking their email, texting and taking pictures with their cellphones. The court recognized that a person’s digital life, full of clues to their behavior could be found on a device weighing less than four ounces.

Law enforcement, however, is a bit stunned, warrantless searches have been justified -- and upheld by the court -- in cases where police safety is concerned or a risk of evidence destruction. But now the court has drawn the digital line. Roberts wrote, “once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, however, data on the phone can endanger no one.” Roberts also wrote that through simple actions police could prevent data destruction.

Technology gives and takes, but the decision, also points to the use of it in speeding up the warrant process to as little as 15 minutes.

Does this decision make it easier for criminals? Not really, it just means law enforcement has to do a more thorough job by taking the extra step in acquiring a warrant. Too bad the thousands of companies siphoning our data daily don’t have to seek a warrant. Now that would be a momentous decision.

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