Steve Chapman
The surprising thing about the Supreme Court's decision on police searches of cellphones was its unanimity. Aligned on the same side of a major law enforcement issue were liberal and conservative justices who normally fight like cats and dogs. All agreed that it's intolerable to let cops ransack the voluminous contents of mobile phones.

Who could disagree? Well, cops, of course. And the Obama administration.

Barack Obama led Americans to believe that he would be far more sensitive to privacy and civil liberties than George W. Bush. But more often than not, he reflexively indulges the demands of law enforcement agencies -- and, for that matter, all agencies. In clashes between government and the individual, the president almost invariably sides with the former.

In this case, the Justice Department took the view that a cellphone is just another object a person may carry, no different from a roll of mints. It was a view that drew scorn from Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote, "That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon."

The government's resounding defeat brings to mind one Roberts experience when he was still arguing before the court as a lawyer. After losing a case, his client asked why the vote was 9-0. "Well," answered Roberts, "because there are only nine justices."

The rebuke ought to give the Justice Department pause. "When you can't get Samuel Alito to vote with you on a police case, you've lost all sense of proportion," George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told me.

It may be standard procedure for the department to side with cops when their practices are challenged. But it's not always wise -- and besides, when did candidate Obama ever promise to dutifully uphold the status quo, right or wrong?

The administration took a similarly cramped attitude in another case where the cops wanted free rein to investigate your habits. It argued that police should be free to attach GPS monitoring devices to cars without a warrant, because that doesn't constitute a search.

During oral arguments, Roberts asked whether Supreme Court justices would be covered by that policy: "You think there would also not be a search if you put a GPS device on all our cars, monitored our movements for a month? You think you're entitled to do that under your theory?" Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben affirmed the point.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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