Supreme Court ruling on cell phone privacy is "really big deal," ACLU's Samuelson says

All these folks agree officers need a warrant to search your cell phone.
All these folks agree officers need a warrant to search your cell phone.

This week, in a rare unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agencies must obtain a warrant before searching cell phones.

The ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, says that just because smartphones now allow people to carry vast quantities of their personal information around with them "does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought."

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The ruling was applauded by ACLU Minnesota Executive Director Chuck Samuelson, who characterizes it as "a huge ruling -- this is a really big deal."

Samuelson says the SCOTUS ruling, along with a bill signed into law this year in Minnesota that requires officers to obtain a warrant before they can track the location of a suspect's phone, represent victories for people like himself who believe "we have a constitutional provision that requires the police to say why they're searching you."

"It's about stopping fishing expeditions," Samuelson tells us. "The NSA is engaging in a giant fishing expedition on everybody to find out what crimes have been committed, but that's bass awkwards."

"In the U.S. you have to commit a crime before police get involved to find out what crime and who did it," he adds. "In the NSA world, they track everybody, find out what everybody is guilty of, and then decide if they're going to prosecute or not. This was an attempt by the court to restore some balance from the civil liberties point of view."

Samuelson notes, however, that "police and NSA can still search your phone without a warrant -- they just cannot use it against you" in court. And it's not as though judges usually make it very difficult for officers to obtain warrants in the first place.

"Every police jurisdiction has a number of friendly judges where you just call them up and get a warrant," Samuelson says. "You sit by the side of the road, email them and you get a warrant. Bingo, it's done."

It's also important for people to know their rights in case you find yourself on the wrong side of the law, Samuelson says.

(For more, click to page two.)

"If police ask to search your phone, you say no," Samuelson says. "If you don't say no or say yes you've given away your rights."

Samuelson doesn't think the ruling will have a huge impact in Minnesota. He says he isn't aware of any cases where crucial evidence was gathered by a warrant-less search of a phone.

But in other parts of the country -- especially "places that have a long history of civil liberties abuses," as Samuelson puts it -- warrantless phone searches have resulted in convictions. (The Supreme Court ruling stemmed from two such incidents, one in California and the other in Massachusetts.)

As to whether the ruling might result in a bunch of convictions being overturned, Samuelson says he has his doubts.

"Convictions that depended solely on the information they found on your cell phone, they could be in danger," he says. "But you could have cases where they search stuff but got other information from other sources. It'll come down to a convicted criminal saying, 'They screwed up,' and a judge will have to decide."

"Most likely the judge will decide, 'You're toast, back to the hoosegow for you,'" Samuelson adds. "You can appeal that up to the U.S. Supreme Court."

Send your story tips to the author, Aaron Rupar. Follow him on Twitter @atrupar.

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