Washington: In a sweeping victory for privacy rights in the digital age, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the police need warrants to search the mobile phones of people they arrest.
While the decision will offer protection to the 12 million people arrested every year, many for minor crimes, its impact will most likely be much broader. The ruling almost certainly also applies to searches of tablet and laptop computers, and its reasoning may apply to searches of homes and businesses and of information held by third parties like phone companies.
"This is a bold opinion," said Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University. "It is the first computer-search case, and it says we are in a new digital age. You can't apply the old rules anymore."
Mobile phones deserve the same protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures" as other personal property - for example homes - enshrined in the US constitution's Fourth Amendment, the top US court said on Wednesday.
The court, in two cases involving criminal suspects whose mobile handsets were searched by police, weighed the interest of law enforcement in finding important evidence against the civil liberties guaranteed in the constitution.
Chief Justice John Roberts jnr, writing for the court, was keenly alert to the central role mobile phones play in contemporary life. They are, he said, "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".
But he added that old principles required that their contents be protected from routine searches. One of the driving forces behind the American Revolution, he wrote, was revulsion against "general warrants," which "allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity".
"The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand," the chief justice also wrote, "does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought."
"Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a [mobile] phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple - get a warrant," he wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union hailed the decision as important for constitutional rights, while the Centre for Democracy and Technology called the ruling "a tremendous victory for privacy rights".
Yousry Zakhary of the International Association of Chiefs of Police said the ruling was "disappointing and will undoubtedly impact law enforcement's ability to investigate and combat crime".
Meanwhile, the US Congress passed a law offering whistleblower protections for government intelligence employees, a move cheered by supporters of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The House of Representatives voted late on Tuesday to pass the provision authorising the US government's intelligence activities for the 2015 budget year, which begins on October 1. Section VI forbids firing, demoting or other reprisals against any intelligence worker who reports violations of federal law, wasting of funds or any activity that puts the public in danger to the inspector-general of agencies such as the National Security Agency or Central Intelligence Agency.
"It's a no-brainer to restore safe alternatives to illegal leaks," said Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, which defends Mr Snowden.
But non-staff contractors, such as Mr Snowden during his time working for the NSA, are not covered by the new protections.
New York Times, AFP