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Warrant required for cellphone searches, Supreme Court rules

The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck a blow in favor of those who believe that law enforcement is increasingly encroaching on the right to privacy in Michigan and around the country. The Court told police departments throughout the U.S. that they must obtain a search warrant before officers may look through a person’s cellphone.

The search warrant requirement is a fundamental part of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In general, it requires investigators to show a neutral magistrate, such as a judge, that probable cause exists that a search will turn up evidence of a crime, before they are allowed to actually conduct the search.

Exceptions do exist to this law. For example, a police officer who has a reasonable suspicion that a person who is in public has committed a crime may stop that person and perform a pat-down search. Depending on the circumstances, the officer may be able to seize and inspect what he or she feels through your clothing.

Today, officers commonly find cellphones in people’s pockets while frisking them. Many police officers would then look through the phone for pictures, text messages and other potential evidence to use against its owner.

Late in June, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the idea, argued by the Obama administration, that a cellphone is essentially similar to a pack of cigarettes or a plastic baggie for stop-and-frisk searches. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that the devices are really computers that store large amounts of personal data, which Roberts described as “the privacies of life:” photographs, phone numbers, email, and so on.

Because of this, the Court found that the search warrant requirement should apply. However, the justices did permit police to seize a cellphone and hold it until they get a warrant.

This ruling means that the results of a warrantless police search of your cellphone may not be allowed in court. A defense attorney can explain this and other rights you hold, if you are ever charged with a crime.

Source: Associated Press, “’Get a warrant’ to search cellphones, Justices say,” Mark Sherman, June 25, 2014

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