In our modern times, people have become increasingly reliant on their cellphones. People’s phones, particularly if they are a smartphone, serve not only as a phone but also will be used as a camera, photo album, schedule book, and phone contact list. Further, people’s conversations via text messaging will often be stored on their phone. These text conversations can run from the mundane to the deeply intimate. People rely heavily on their cellphones and often store very personal information on their phone that they would not want a complete stranger to see or have access too.
Police have in many instances tried to obtain evidence that a crime has been committed by attempting to gain access to defendant’s cell phones and their contents. Such contents may be phone numbers, text messages, photos and addresses linking a defendant to criminal activities such as drug and gang activity. The police would either simply gain the defendant’s consent to search their phone which does not implicate the fourth amendment and would be categorized as a legal search or the police will search a phone without consent and justify the warrantless search as a search incident to the defendants arrest which is an exception to the search warrant requirement. Whether police need a warrant to search the cell phone of a person who has not granted the police permission to search their phone is an issue that has been hotly debated and until recently, unresolved.
On June 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court by a 9-0 vote held that smart phones and other electronic devices were not to be held in the same category as other items such as wallets, briefcases and vehicles which all have a limited exception to the requirement of a search warrant prior to examination and which are all subject to a limited initial examination by law enforcement. Home searches generally require a warrant and are given greater constitutional protection than vehicles or a person in public.
The U.S. Supreme Court specifically held, “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.” Further, the court stated, “Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to arrest is accordingly simple, get a warrant.”
Chief Justice John Roberts stated, “Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse,” “Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.”
The U.S Supreme Court’s ruling on cell phone searches without a warrant is a sweeping endorsement of privacy rights by a court which has very often ruled in favor of extending law enforcements powers over the rights of the individual.
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Article Author: C. Matthew Miller
C. Matthew Miller is the sole practitioner at Miller Law Offices, P.C. He has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer and the American Society of Legal Advocates as a Top 40 Criminal Defense lawyer Under 40 in the State of Illinois. Mr. Miller concentrates his practice in Criminal Law, DUI, Criminal Record Expungements, Divorce and Child Custody.