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
    Franklin G Ryzzo (profile), 9 Mar 2012 @ 1:12pm

    Re:

    My understanding (IANAL) is that if something is locked a warrant would be required to compel the act of unlocking. I can't see how this would be any different if the lock is digital as opposed to physical. And beyond that, if they can't open it themselves, you could potentially stand on the 5th amendment to refuse.

    For instance, if a police officer pulls you over, with probable cause, they could do0 a plain sight inspection of the contents of your vehicle, but if they wanted to get in the trunk or a locked glovebox, they would need a warrant. Likewise, in the example illustrated in the article of an address book, they could look through the book and view what pertained to whatever prompted the search but would need to exclude anything that was unrelated to why they flipped it open even if it was evidence of a separate crime. If the address book or diary had a lock on it, they could not force it open without your consent or a warrant. I would think (read: hope) that applies the same to digital locks.

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