WASHINGTON (AP) - In an emphatic defense of privacy in the digital age, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police generally may not search the cellphones of people they arrest without first getting search warrants.
Cellphones are unlike anything else police may find on someone they arrest, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. They are "not just another technological convenience," he said, but ubiquitous, increasingly powerful computers that contain vast quantities of personal, sensitive information.
"With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life," Roberts declared. So the message to police about what they should do before rummaging through a cellphone's contents following an arrest is simple: "Get a warrant."
The chief justice acknowledged that barring searches would affect law enforcement, but he said: "Privacy comes at a cost."
By ruling as it did, the court chose not to extend earlier decisions from the 1970s-- when cellphone technology was not yet available - that allow police to empty a suspect's pockets and examine whatever they find to ensure officers' safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.
The Obama administration and the state of California, defending cellphone searches, said the phones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find. But the defendants in the current cases, backed by civil libertarians, librarians and news media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, can store troves of sensitive personal information.
Colorado Springs Police Department said cellphones are critical evidence in many of its investigations.
"There are so many different ways people use their cellphones these days that there is just a plethora of means for them to be evidence in an investigation," said spokesperson Catherine Buckley with the Colorado Springs Police Department.
She said the Supreme Court's decision will not have a big impact on CSPD because its has already outlined similar guidelines for its investigators.
"They have required either a search waiver signed on behalf of the cellphone owner or they have required a warrant to download that information," said Buckley.
Cellphone users around Colorado Springs said the information they store on their cellphones has changed over the years.
"I just had contact numbers and stuff like that. Now I have my Gmail accounts and I got other accounts on my phone that I use to get into my personal information," said Robert Martinez.
"Everything. Everything is stored on your cellphone now," said Jen Cawley.
People in downtown Colorado Springs Wednesday agreed with the Supreme Court's decision.
"The cellphone these days in this digital era is just like an extension of your home and your own privacy so it makes sense a warrant is needed," said Vic Estrella.
"I think it's great. I think it protects all the information you have on the phone," said Eugene Orr.
Opponents of the decision argue that making police obtain search warrants will give suspects time to delete information on their phones.
Buckley said investigators can still get information they need.
"There is always that concern that somebody might try to wipe a cellphone but sometimes there are other ways to recover info than just from a cellphone," said Buckley.
Buckley said getting a waiver or warrant has been the practice with the investigative units, but it's been optional for patrol units. Now it will be implemented across the entire department.