Modern cell phones are personal computers.
They contain loads of sensitive information ranging from private photos to possibly a web camera stream into your own home. Because of this, the extent to which police can examine your phone’s contents without a search warrant is now a tricky matter. The police must balance your privacy rights with the needs of law enforcement. For example, the police cannot use your web camera stream to search your home without a warrant, but they may be able to look at other information.
The Court’s recent ruling involved a drug bust where police seized a cell phone and then searched for its phone number in order to subpoena the call history from the phone company. Historically, the police can look inside a “container” when making an arrest. The prosecution claimed the phone was like a container and therefore could be examined.
The Court said that a cell phone is more like an ultra-diary than a container. However, the police can check the phone’s number and ownership. Police can search without a warrant when there is enough justification, such as to check for weapons or to preserve evidence. Some stun guns look like cell phones. But more importantly, a cell phone’s contents can be remotely erased, and thus destroyed. The police can examine your phone for its number to preserve that information. While an officer cannot read your love letters either inside the pages of your diary or the files of your cell phone, getting your address or cell phone number is only a slight invasion of your privacy.
The Court left the question of when an officer could make a more extensive search of your cell phone’s contents for another day.
If you have questions about this or another related criminal or traffic matter, please contact Matt Keenan at 847-568-0160 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For the full court decision, see U.S.A. vs Flores-Lopez.
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