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. identicon
    Cowardly Anonymous, 9 Mar 2012 @ 8:34am

    Re: Moral of the story...

    The ruling of this court is essentially to use the real-world analog as far as searches are considered, which means they would hold that a password affords the same protection as a combination lock. Since (I'm pretty sure) the locked rule applies generically to all locking mechanisms, yes, they need a warrant.

    This is reinforced by the fact that there are digital locks that are used for doors (hotel rooms, high-tech safes, etc) and thus the method of locking is actually identical to locks where the protection is clearly afforded.

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