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Focus: warrantless cellphone search of a suspect following arrest

Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases concerning police officers’ warrantless searches of cellphones. As is typically true with rulings issued by the Court, the outcomes in those cases will likely have important implications across the country, including in North Carolina.

One of the cases involved a man whose cellphone began ringing while he was at a police station following his arrest on a criminal charge relating to a drug sale. Absent a warrant, police officers immediately began a close examination of the phone, scrutinizing its call directory, photos and other information. Based upon the information gathered, they subsequently obtained a search warrant for a particular home, finding drugs and weapons there.

The key question before the Supreme Court in that case is whether the information collected from the phone search should have been suppressed at trial. In other words: Absent the issuance of a warrant from a neutral judge or magistrate based on probable cause to search, should all criminal evidence obtained from police examination of the phone have been excluded?

Many criminal commentators would readily say that such evidence is instantly tainted because it was obtained without law enforcement officers adhering to the requirements set forth in the nation’s Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment. The general rule set forth in that important amendment to the Bill of Rights is that, with few exceptions relating to imminent danger or the likelihood that evidence will be destroyed, police officers flatly need to obtain a warrant prior to a search. Failure to do so serves as a violation of a suspect’s constitutional rights.

One legal writer addressing the case in a recent media article says that, while phone evidence should not be off limits to police officers, a phone search would certainly seem to require standard adherence to the stated Fourth Amendment requirements.

We will follow up on this subject when the Supreme Court rulings are announced.

Source: CNN, "WIll cops be free to search your phone?" Danny Cevallos, April 28, 2014

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