Finally, we get to score one for personal privacy.
In this age of increasing government intrusion into the lives of the governed, the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday ruled unanimously -- that's right, unanimously -- that police cannot just go bounding through suspects' personal cellphones without first obtaining a search warrant.
The High Court -- rightly in our view -- held that the Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure apply to cellphones. The court recognized that today's smartphones are so much more than a mere telephone. They are miniature, extremely portable computers often containing mounds of personal and private data.
The prosecution had hung its argument on a 1973 case decided by the High Court that allows police to search whatever a suspect is carrying when arrested. The rationale in that case was that police should be able to search for weapons that could harm them and for evidence that could otherwise be destroyed.
This decision does not change that, nor should it. Those are reasonable guidelines. But the court realized that things have changed since 1973.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, writing for the entire court, made note of that when he wrote that modern cellphones "hold for many Americans the privacies of life."
"The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought."
Likewise, the ruling does not prevent police from seizing the cellphone to keep it safe until a warrant can be issued.
Roberts wrote that once a cellphone has been seized from a suspect the process to examine it should be simple: "Get a warrant."
As is often true in civil liberties cases, the person and circumstance surrounding this case are disturbing.
It involves David Leon Riley of San Diego, a Lincoln Park gang member who was arrested in 2009 for having expired car license tags. The police impounded his car, found loaded guns under the hood and charged him with possession of the firearms.
Riley was carrying a smartphone. An officer confiscated it and found texts, photos and other information on it that connected Riley to gang members. As a result, he was convicted of attempted murder and assault with a semi-automatic firearm. He is serving a 15-year sentence.
Like we said, troubling.
But under the legal system established by our Founders there are rules and principles under which society must abide to operate properly, especially when talking about police powers. One of those rules is that the government can't search its citizens unreasonably. We heartily agree with the unanimous court that searching through cellphones without a warrant is clearly unreasonable.