The Fourth Amendment protects you—and every other citizen of the U.S.—against unreasonable searches by law enforcement.
The police are not allowed to perform searches without a search warrant. To obtain a search warrant, the police must convince a court that there is probable cause that evidence of a crime exists at the place they want to search.
However, there are some exceptions to the amendment. The police can search without a warrant if there are “exigent circumstances,” which means that the police need to take action but do not have time to get a warrant—such as when someone is in imminent danger, a suspect is escaping, or evidence is being destroyed. Law enforcement can also conduct a warrantless search of a person when they are making an arrest.
This last exception is what’s at the heart of a current Supreme Court case, according to NPR.
When making an arrest, the police are allowed to search a person and seize as evidence whatever they are carrying. This includes a wallet, address book, diary, photographs, etc.
But most people don’t carry all those things anymore, with the exception of a wallet. Instead, they carry their smartphone—which can house much more information than what police could previously find in a diary or address book.
Does this make a smartphone different enough that looking through it should require a warrant? After all, if a warrant is not required, the police could perform a limitless search of a person’s phone—exposing intimate details of their private lives, from emails to their spouse, to medical information, to GPS data showing where they’ve been.
The Supreme Court heard this case in late April and is expected to issue a ruling in July. The Court’s ruling will have a significant impact on the Fourth Amendment rights of every American.