Cellphones and smartphones generally cannot be searched by police without a warrant during arrests, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday in a major victory for privacy rights.
Ruling on two cases from California and Massachusetts, the justices acknowledged both a right to privacy and a need to investigate crimes. But they came down squarely on the side of privacy rights.
"Modern cellphones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet or a purse," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.
POLL: Will the Islamic Jihadists attack in the United States?
"We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime," he said. "Privacy comes at a cost."
The justices struck down an extensive smartphone search in California that had been upheld by the state Court of Appeals, as well as a more limited probe of an old flip-top cellphone in Massachusetts that a federal judge already had thrown out.
Currently, police can search a person under arrest and whatever physical items are within reach to find weapons and preserve evidence that might be destroyed. But the justices noted that vast amounts of sensitive data on modern smartphones raise new privacy concerns that differentiate them from other items.