Supreme Court Places Limits on Police Powers to Search Smart Phones

Just as cell phones and smart phones have become a way of life in recent years, it has become routine for police to seek to recover information from the devices as part of their investigations.

However, a recent U.S. Supreme Court has drawn a line in the sand on use of information from these devices by ruling that police and investigators generally may not search the cellphones of people who they have arrested without first getting search warrants.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the unanimous decision reflected the fact smart phones contain so much information the issue is one of privacy and investigators must get a warrant before looking through them.

“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” Roberts said.

Associated Press reported on how a decision in the case of Riley v California was handed down last month. The highest court in the land chose not to extend earlier court rulings which allowed police officers to empty the pockets of suspects and examine the contents to ensure the safety of police officers and prevent the destruction of the evidence.

Both the state of California and the federal government backed the idea of cellphone searches, arguing smart phones and similar devices should have no greater protection from a search than anything else investigators find.

Criminal suspects in Massachusetts and California were convicted in separate cases, in part, after text messages, phone numbers, photos and addresses obtained from their personal electronic devices linked them to drug and gang activity.

The cases were appealed to the high court, providing an opportunity to re-ignite the public debate over the limits of privacy rights, with a focus on the cellphone, a device owned by as many as 90 percent of Americans.

Civil liberties groups and news media groups argued that cellphones, in particular smart phones, are powerful computers that can store large amounts of sensitive personal information.

Roberts said the comparison to cigarettes packets and other items that were at issue in the earlier cases is not relevant.

He argued rides on horseback and a flight to the moon “are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together.”

Roberts said if investigators are concerned that evidence on smart phones will be destroyed, they can take steps to prevent the remote erasure of a phone’s contents or the activation of encryption.

The sole exception to the warrant requirement is in a case in which police officers reasonably fear for their safety or the lives of others, Roberts said.

“The simple fact that the Supreme Court unanimously agreed on is this: When it comes to privacy, digital is different,” Kevin Bankston, policy director at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, told the Washington Post.

“Searching the vast amount of data on your cellphone is different from searching your backpack, just as tracking your car with a GPS device is different from having the police follow you, and the government seizing all of the e-mail you store in the cloud is different from seizing your file cabinet.”

As criminal defense attorneys we see many cases in which police officers go above and beyond their legal powers in gathering evidence. This ruling is as important to Texas as it is to the rest of the nation.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.