Writing in the New York Times, longtime U.S. Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse says that Wednesday’s unanimous ruling barring warrantless searches of cellphones by police is an indication that the politically polarized justices are “trying hard, collectively, to get it right” by setting aside ideology when it comes to technology. She noted that the justices have cellphones, too, and likely empathized with the appellant in the case.
In the case, Riley v. California, the California Court of Appeal deemed valid the search of a smartphone carried by a man stopped for driving with expired license tags. On the phone, the police found text, photographs and video linking its owner with gang activity, including a shooting. Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Cellphones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee's person.” He went on at length to describe the differences, noting that a cellphone can reveal more private information than the search of an entire house. The chief justice's response to the government's warning that a warrant requirement would impede law enforcement was basically a shrug: “Privacy comes at a cost.”