U.S. Supreme Court Strongly Backs Cellphone Privacy

By Mark Walsh — June 25, 2014 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of strong Fourth Amendment protections for the digital data on modern cellphones. Although the decision dealt with situations in which the police searched, without a warrant, the cellphones of suspects who were under arrest, it could hold implications for school administrators and the police in schools.

There have been a number of incidents in recent years in which school administrators confiscated and searched the contents of student cellphones. It’s not clear whether the new decision, in Riley v. California (Case No. 13-132), will settle the question for those actions, since administrators may search students and their belongings under the lesser standard of reasonable suspicion (under New Jersey v. T.L.O.) instead of the probable cause standard the police must meet for warrantless searches.

Still, the unanimous Riley decision’s strong support for giving privacy protections to digital information would give students some ammunition in student discipline situations.

“Modern cell phones ... are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court.

“The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone,” the chief justice said. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”

Today, Roberts added, “it is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90 percent of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives—from the mundane to the intimate. Allowing the police to scrutinize such records on a routine basis is quite different from allowing them to search a personal item or two in the occasional case.”

The decision covered two cases in which the police had rummaged through the cellphones of criminal suspects and found evidence of various crimes. The justices upheld one lower court that had ruled for the defendant and overturned another lower court that had upheld a warrantless search. Justice Anthony A. Alito Jr. wrote a short concurrence, saying he thought legislatures would be better suited than courts to hash out the privacy issues raised by modern cellphones.

Roberts did not address a case raised in one of the briefs that presented a similar situation in the context of a high school student. This was not a case of school discipline but of a Texas student, Anthony Granville, who was arrested for a disturbance on a school bus. While the student was in custody, the school resource officer from his high school came to the jail and searched Granville’s cellphone without a warrant.

The officer found a photo that Granville had taken of another student in a school bathroom, and Granville was charged with a felony of “improper visual photography.” The student challenged the search on Fourth Amendment grounds, and the highest criminal appeals court in Texas ruled in his favor.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.