The U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled on a case that will have wide impact on the way law enforcement collects evidence in the digital age. As a federal appeals lawyer discusses, warrantless searches of a suspect’s cell phone have been held unconstitutional in most cases.
The issue before the court was whether police must first obtain a warrant before searching data on a criminal suspect’s cell phone. A host of information can be obtained on the devices such as photographs, browsing history, contact information, incoming and outgoing calls, GPS positioning, etc. Much of this information can prove critical in investigating a crime. However, as the court has long held, citizens are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures of their homes and vehicles. The court has now brought cell phones into the prohibition against warrantless searches fold. This ruling will likely be used to require warrants for other devices such as laptop computers, iPads, etc.
Chief Justice Roberts recognized that requiring warrants before searching cell phone data would make law enforcement more difficult, but he believed that the court has struck a reasonable balance. By the time an officer has secured a cell phone from a suspect, any immediate danger to the officer is usually long past. The opposition raised concerns that phones are subject to remote wipe technology. Justice Roberts reasoned that an officer can easily turn off the phone, remove the battery or put it in a foil bag to prevent that from happening. Finally, the new ruling will still allow officers to search cell phones without a warrant in the case of exigent circumstances that can be reviewed on a case by case basis.
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