Cellphones Searched Without a Warrant in Some States


By Krystina Steffen, staff In Good Practice writer – August 24, 2011

States have laws that must be applied when police search a car or a home, including obtaining a warrant to legally search these places. But with new lawsuits emerging in cases where police are searching and confiscating cellphones, it brings up a new topic for debate. Do the police need to have a warrant before looking at the data on your cellphone should you be stopped for a traffic violation or when they visit your home?

Law enforcement agencies say that cellphone data is not a private matter. People are willing to show where they’ve checked in on their Facebook wall, post pictures on Twitter of their night out, and download apps to locate their nearest friend, event, or restaurant nearby. So if police find incriminating information on a cellphone when a driver is stopped for going over the speed limit, for example, the authorities say there is one less potential criminal on the loose and the data was worth going after. Federal investigators also use cell site location information (CSLI) and cellphone data to pinpoint who did a crime in a particular area.

In Connecticut, investigators sought this information in a string of bank robberies in Windsor and Berlin to recreate movements of individuals who could have carried out this crime. A search of 169 numbers from nine cellphone companies led them to charge Luis Soto with the crime and, “… that he was in close proximity to other alleged participants in the robbery”, including his brother. [1] Soto’s attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Terence S. Ward, says investigators did not get a warrant for the cellphone records and has filed a motion to suppress the Soto brothers’ information that was recreated with cellphone tower records. [2] The authorities had plenty of evidence to convict the Soto brothers without overstepping the boundaries by getting cellphone records.

“The scope of these orders is surprising to say the least, and the time to consider what is mass surveillance and how it interrelates with the Fourth Amendment has arrived,” Soto’s attorney said. [3]

In Texas, if a driver is stopped for any violation, the police have a right to look at a person’s cellphone texts, e-mails, photos, notes, and any other data available. [4] In Michigan, police requested cellphone information on anyone at or near a labor-union protest. [5] For anyone interested in privacy rights, these searches are unreasonable.

“The Constitution guarantees Americans freedom from unwarranted government intrusion everywhere — in their homes, online and on their cellphones,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut. [6] “Technology may make it easier for that intrusion to happen, but that’s no excuse for it.”


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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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