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Supreme Court: Police Need Warrant to Search Cell Phones

In a rare unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that police may not search suspects’ cell phones without first obtaining a warrant. The ruling is seen by many as a broad endorsement of the right to privacy in the digital age, and could potentially be seen to apply to tablets, laptops and other technologies. It may also impact the searching of homes, businesses and third parties, including phone company records. 

In the cases under review, which were originally tried in Massachusetts and California, criminal suspects were convicted based on cell phone evidence that linked them to drug and gang activity. The evidence included photos, text messages, addresses and phone numbers. The court determined that the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure applied in these cases, and that those protections were violated. 

The Court’s decision, to a large extent, came down to the question of whether cell phones are sufficiently different from wallets, address books or other closed containers as to require stricter standards for searching. In short, the Court said that cell phones are different. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. even noted that the term “cell phone” hardly begins to describe the actual uses of the devices, which have a wide variety of functions beyond those of a simple phone. He wrote that the amount of information at hand, and the fact that it’s easily available at a person’s fingertips, doesn’t make the information any less worthy of protection. 

Individuals who have had encounters with law enforcement should be aware of their right to privacy as it concerns their cell phones and other electronics. If you have questions or concerns about the legality of police procedures during your encounter with the police, contact an experienced Berks County attorney right away. The criminal defense attorneys at the Law Office of David R. Eshelman can help clarify your rights and will fight on your behalf if you believe your right to privacy was violated.

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