SCOTUS rules on San Diego cellphone case; warrant required for search

SAN DIEGO - Wednesday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling -- stemming from a 2009 San Diego case -- that police must get a warrant before searching the contents of smartphones seized from arrestees was called "revolutionary" by the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Five years ago, a San Diego police officer seized reputed gang member David Riley's cellphone and found images that depicted gang activity. An attorney argued that the search was unconstitutional, but a judge rejected the argument.

In its ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court held that smartphones contain a wealth of personal data and shouldn't be treated the same as other physical evidence or weapons seized during arrests.

"By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today's decision is itself revolutionary and will help protect the privacy rights of all Americans," said Steven R. Shapiro, national legal director of the ACLU. "We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognized, our old values still apply and limit the government's ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives."

State authorities argued that if police had to wait for a warrant to search a cellphone, evidence could be erased remotely.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the high court's opinion.

"Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans 'the privacies of life.' The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought."

Lt. Kevin Mayer, a spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, said the agency was preparing a directive to send to all its personnel outlining requirements for searching mobile phones, based on the high court's decision.

"Obtaining search warrants is an investigative tool, and cellphones will simply be incorporated into this process," Mayer said.

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