Court Confirms Police Don't Need A Warrant To Do A Limited Search Of A Mobile Phone

from the lock-it-down dept

In a court ruling that came out a little while ago (just catching up now), Judge Richard Posner took the lead in an appeals court ruling that effectively reaffirmed the idea that police don't need a warrant to search mobile phones as they're arresting someone. Of course, this general concept is not new and I've discussed my concerns about police being able to search phones without a warrant in the past -- but this particular ruling does seem pretty limited. While Posner notes some of the bigger questions, he basically compares the phone to a diary, and focuses on the mere searching of basic data, like the address book, to suggest this particular search was limited, and doesn't raise any significant 4th amendment issue.
It’s not even clear that we need a rule of law specific to cell phones or other computers. If police are entitled to open a pocket diary to copy the owner’s address, they should be entitled to turn on a cell phone to learn its number. If allowed to leaf through a pocket address book, as they are, United States v. Rodriguez, 995 F.2d 776, 778 (7th Cir. 1993), they should be entitled to read the address book in a cell phone. If forbidden to peruse love letters recognized as such found wedged between the pages of the address book, they should be forbidden to read love letters in the files of a cell phone.
Effectively, the court more or less says that circumstances matter, and that in situations where there's a chance that data will get deleted or modified, it's perfectly reasonable to do a simple search of the mobile phone, but it could get thornier if it moves more in the direction of voyeurism, rather than as evidence for crimes. I'd certainly prefer much stronger privacy protections -- especially as a phone really is a window into much, much more than just a phone, but the ruling isn't much of a surprise and seems to align with other rulings on similar issues.

Filed Under: mobile phones, police, search, warrant


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  1. icon
    E. Zachary Knight (profile), 9 Mar 2012 @ 9:35am

    Re:

    What I find interesting here is another wonderful contradiction of Techdirt.

    No contradictions to be found here.

    Here we have a situation where pretty much Mike is crying out for new laws, preferring strong privacy protections. Essentially, the law hasn't caught up to the idea of smart phones, and he wants them to address it and to tighten restrictions.

    The law hasn't caught up with how to protect the privacy of someone who carries around their entire life in a convenient pocket sized computer. I think that is an important area to focus on creating narrowly defined protections for citizens' privacy.

    Yet, on the other hand, where the law doesn't handle online abuses of copyright or trademarks very well, he is against any new law that would cover the new situation and tighten restrictions.


    No. He is against new laws and enforcements that shatter the current protections for citizens' privacy and security. If a law was proposed that did not have severe consequences for privacy and security rights of citizens, I am sure Mike would be more willing to consider it. However, no recent law has been able to show that it does not harm privacy and security rights of citizens.

    The key issue you fail to understand is that people's privacy and security trumps your right to have a monopoly.

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