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Supreme Court Tells Police to Get a Warrant Before Searching Cellphone Data

The proliferation of smart phones and other devices that store data in recent years has raised many questions about the use of information by police officers and prosecutors.

Last month a unanimous Supreme Court decision provided a robust defense of digital age privacy when the highest court in the land ruled that police may not generally search the cellphones of people who they have arrested without first getting search warrants.

Chief Justice John Roberts said because the phones contain so much information, police must get a warrant before looking through them.

"Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life," Roberts said.

Associated Press reported on how the court chose not to extend earlier rulings allowing police officers to empty the pockets of suspects and examine the contents to ensure officers' safety and prevent the destruction of the evidence.

The Obama administration and the state of California had supported the idea of cellphone searches, arguing devices such as smart phones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else investigators find.

However, a group of defendants including civil liberties groups and news media groups, argued that cellphones, in particular smartphones, are increasingly powerful computers that can store large amounts of sensitive personal information.

One of the defendants in the case carried a smartphone, while the other carried an older flip phone. Roberts argued the comparison to cigarettes packets and other items that were at issue in the earlier cases is not relevant.

He argued rides on horseback and a flight to the moon "are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together."

Roberts said if investigators are concerned about the destruction of evidence on smartphones, they can take steps to prevent the remote erasure of a phone's contents or the activation of encryption.

The single exception to the warrant requirement is a case in which police officers reasonably fear for their safety or the lives of others, Roberts said.

In the case in San Diego, California police found evidence of gang membership when they looked a defendant's Samsung smartphone. Prosecutors used photographs and video evidence found on the smartphone to persuade a jury to convict a defendant of attempted murder and other charges. The court ordered the California Supreme Court to look again at the case.

It's not uncommon for police and investigators to go beyond the bounds of what's legal in South Carolina in order to get a conviction. An experienced Columbia criminal defense attorney will be able to expose evidential flaws in the process and call prosecutors to account. Call Masella Law at 803.748.9990.