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Can Police Search Cell Phones without a Warrant?

May 22nd, 2014 at 7:30 am

Chicago criminal defense attorney, search cell phones, search warrant, right to privacy, warrantless police searches, privacy protectionsThe law of warrantless search and seizure and other limits on police activity has been argued and debated in criminal cases for over a hundred years. Now, that argument is extending to the use of technology in modern times. According to a recent news article, the United States Supreme Court is considering two cases about warrantless police searches of defendants’ cell phones and the legality of such actions.

What is a Cell Phone?

Each case currently before the Court portrays a cell phone in completely opposing lights. Whether the Court considers a cell phone a criminal’s tool or an individual’s virtual home will directly affect their decision and the outcome of the cases in question. The defense is arguing that warrantless searches of cell phones upon arrest violates the right to privacy in the digital age.

The government is arguing that the searches are constitutional, reasoning that cell phones are no different than any other possession found on a person when they are arrested, and that search incident to arrest in the absence of a warrant has long been upheld in high court cases. Taking it a step further, the government is also saying that cell phones act as critical tools in the commission of a crime.

The Right to Privacy

In the broader legal world, some are urging the Court to consider a broad view on privacy protections that are implicated by police having access to powerful devices that are capable of storing volumes of personal information. Cell phones are powerful, and are only becoming more so as technology advances.

Those on the privacy side of the argument are saying that cell phones should be afforded the same protections as citizens’ homes when it comes it police intrusion, requiring a warrant that is supported by probable cause. However, the legal analysis is more complicated than that, due, in part, to the numerous exceptions that have been identified over the years for police behavior when arresting a suspect. Police generally have more leeway for warrantless searches in these situations in order to ensure officer safety and to prevent evidence from being destroyed.

A Resolution is Expected

Both state and federal courts have struggled with this issue, in some cases coming to opposing rulings. The impending rulings from the Supreme Court are expected to provide a resolution regarding whether cell phones will receive special protection. It is also possible for the Court to come up with a narrow ruling that applies in some circumstances but not others. One thing is certain: the rate at which technology is developed and changes will be a key consideration in reaching a decision in these cases.

Criminal Defense Attorney

Although the Supreme Court has yet to extend privacy protections to cell phones, there are numerous other safeguards in place to protect a criminal suspect or defendant from police intrusion. If you have been charged with a crime and believe your privacy protections may have been implicated, an experienced criminal defense attorney can discuss your case with you and protect your rights. Contact the Law Office of Christopher M. Cosley today to schedule a consultation. We serve clients in Cook County and surrounding areas.

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