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Editorial: Cellphone searches off limits, court says

A cellphone privacy decision by the U.S. Supreme Court sends a strong message that technology will not undermine protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The court said police must obtain a warrant to search for information on a suspect’s cellphone. The upshot of the rare unanimous decision is that Americans’ privacy rights in the digital age are better protected.

To the chagrin of police agencies and prosecutors, the decision effectively prevents law enforcement from going on fishing expeditions in the troves of personal data that is contained in today’s smart phones.

Chief Justice John Roberts dismissed law enforcement arguments that there is no difference between cellphone data and incidental materials routinely discovered in searches. Roberts wrote: “That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.”

The immediate effect on law enforcement will be to slow down searches that involve cellphones until a warrant can be secured from a judge.

Most judges routinely will sign a warrant, but the additional step represents a significant barrier to undermining the constitutional projection that prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. Simply put, law enforcement officers will have to work a little harder to make a case against a suspect.

The Wednesday decision is a landmark ruling. It affirms a basic constitutional right, while reminding police and prosecutors that they are agents of government – and that government’s power over citizens must be held in check.

The elegance of the Constitution and Bill of Rights is that is that the words written down in 1787 and 1789 still have the power and wisdom they did then.