Police must obtain warrant prior to cellphone search

An estimated 90 percent of U.S. residents own a cellphone. While early cellphone models only allowed users to communicate by calling another individual, today's cellphones serve many more purposes. Today's cellphones allow users to take and store pictures, communicate via social media websites, text and talk to others, store important personal information and complete financial transactions. Given the vast amount of personal information stored on cellphones, it makes sense that police officers routinely search and seize cellphones and rely upon a cellphone’s contents to discover potentially incriminating evidence.

Take for example a 2009 case in which a man with expired tabs was pulled over by police. Upon searching the man's vehicle, guns were discovered. Police officers then searched the man's cellphone at which time they discovered he had gang affiliations. The man was convicted of numerous criminal charges which were subsequently appealed. Upon appeal, however, the appellate court agreed with the lower court's ruling that no search warrants were needed to search and seize the man's cellphone.

This case was cited recently when the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to rule on whether police officers must obtain a search warrant prior to seizing and searching an individual's cellphone. In an important ruling upholding the Fourth Amendment and preserving the privacy rights of U.S. citizens, all justices agreed a search warrant must be issued prior to a cellphone being searched.

In their ruling, the court spoke to the numerous types of information and data stored on cellphones and how allowing ready access to such information violates a citizen's rights to privacy which the court noted is paramount and, "comes at a cost." The ruling was a win for privacy advocates who heralded the Court's decision as an indication of how the Court may rule on future matters related to digital data and materials.

Individuals who believe they were the victim of an illegal search and seizure by law enforcement officials would be wise to seek legal advice from a criminal defense attorney. In cases where police officers violated an individual's Fourth Amendment rights, evidence in a criminal case may be deemed inadmissible.

Source: StartTribune, "Supreme Court votes unanimously to shield cellphone privacy," Adam Liptak, June 25, 2014

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