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On Wednesday, June 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling regarding the search of cell phone data. Before this ruling, police had the ability to search through data in your cell phone, particularly after you were arrested. Police did not need a warrant to conduct this search. However, after this ruling, police must obtain a warrant to look through the data on your cell phone.

The Fourth Amendment prescribes a general rule that police must obtain a warrant before searching your “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” The cases before the Supreme Court that included cell phones in this general rule involved an exception to the warrant requirement. That exception is known as the “search incident to arrest.” This exception allows police to search an individual that is being lawfully arrested for evidence of the crime committed and for weapons. In addition to the individual themselves, this type of search also extends to anything that the arrested person could possibly reach.

For many Americans, if not a majority, their cell phone is within arm’s reach at any given time. As such, the cell phone is the perfect target for a warrantless search. The Court’s opinion even went as far as to say that cell phones “are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” For many, your cell phone contains not only all of your personal contacts, but your text messages, e-mails, calendar, website browsing history, and even financial information. Given the popularity and value of the modern cell phone to Americans, the Court pointed out the importance of balancing the government’s interests with an individual’s right to privacy.

Historically, allowing the search incident to arrest was based on two major concerns: 1) safety of the officer, and 2) potential destruction of evidence. The Court points out that these concerns are simply not applicable in most cases involving a cell phone. Once the officer takes away the cell phone from the person being arrested, it is no longer a safety threat and the person arrested cannot destroy it. Of course, there is the concern about “remote wiping,” which is basically the ability to remove the information from the cell phone without touching the phone. Nonetheless, the Court points out that such an occurrence is rare and may generally be avoided by merely taking out the phone’s battery or turning it off.

The Court concluded that an average cell phone simply contains too much personal information and is of too little threat to governmental interest to avoid the warrant requirement. However, the police can still confiscate the phone and hold it while they obtain a warrant. They can also physically take the phone apart to be sure it is not hiding something dangerous like a razor blade.

Nonetheless, the ruling has been called, “a sweeping endorsement of digital privacy.” It will likely have a substantial impact on the average police department. For example, the Chicago police department, like many police departments across the country, uses something known as a cell site simulator. They are also known as IMSI catchers or Stingray devices. These devices scan cell phones for call logs, text messages, and can track cell phone locations. After the Court’s ruling, it is possible that these devices may need to be shut down or only used when police have a warrant to look through someone’s phone.

This case is important for every American because it recognizes a privacy right in the information on your phone that may not have had previously. It is important to know your rights so that you may assert them should you ever have the need. If you have questions about this case or its effects on you, contact McCarthy, Callas & Feeney at 309-788-2800. We are happy to help you with your legal needs.

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