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Supreme Court Rules On Aereo, Cellphone Searches


The Supreme Court today handed down milestone rulings in two cases involving modern technology and the ways it has changed our lives. In one decision, the court ruled that the police may not search a person's cellphone or other mobile device without first obtaining a warrant, even if they're in the process of arresting that person. The court also ruled against the technology innovator Aereo. A streaming service, Aereo provided customers with TV programs through miniature antennae without the permission of the broadcasters who produced the programs. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins us now with more. Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So let's start with the limits on what police can do in the course of searching suspects with those cellphones that people carry on them. What did the court rule?

TOTENBERG: Well, the lead case here involved a traffic stop in which police arrested the man who had been driving without a license and ended up searching his cellphone, first at the scene and later for several hours at the police station, and they got no warrant. And police have maintained they don't need to get a warrant because this is a search at the time of an arrest. But today, the court said, look, we've given you only two exceptions to getting a warrant, even at an arrest, and that is to search somebody to find weapons to protect the safety of the police officers, and the second reason that you can search is to prevent the destruction of evidence - like flushing drugs down the toilet. And this doesn't fit either of those. More than that, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a unanimous court, said that cellphones are unlike anything we've ever had in our history, but the founding fathers really cared about searches. One of the seeds for the revolution was the British General Warrant. And this is an unreasonable search without a warrant. As Chief Justice Roberts put it, you can reconstruct somebody's life with their cellphone, you can find out things that were never find out-able before. And our answer, he said, to the question of what police must do before a searching a cellphone seized at the time of an arrest is simple - get a warrant.

MONTAGNE: Now, Nina, this was a 9 to 0 decision, unanimous. That'll surprise a lot of people - why didn't we see the usual split in the court?

TOTENBERG: Well, I - they - this seemed to be pretty clear to the justices, that this technological innovation, just because you can hold it in your hand, doesn't mean that it's inconsequential. It's in fact more consequential because if you carried around in your car what you have in your cellphone, you couldn't do it, you would have to have a truck behind you to do that.

MONTAGNE: Let's go to that second case, the case with Aereo. Now, this is a big win, I gather, for major broadcasters. Basically the court ruled what?

TOTENBERG: Well, in this case, Aereo, this startup, said we're not stealing your material, your licensed material, we're just giving every individual who subscribes to our service a tiny antenna and when they choose a program to record, it is only recorded on that antenna and therefore we're not stealing your material. And Justice Stephen Breyer writing for the court said - and I'm quoting here - he said in the courtroom, "hmm." And then he went on to say we're not buying that argument. We're not saying - this just - it does not fit the statute. The statute says you can't transmit material. And this is without the permission of the copyright, the person who holds the copyright, and this is transmitting.

MONTAGNE: Right, so therefore - obviously, therefore not constitutional. Not against the law.

TOTENBERG: Not legal, not statutory. And he went on to say we're not ruling on the cloud and other things that may involve material created by the user not the broadcaster.

MONTAGNE: Well, Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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