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Courtesy of U.S. Supreme Court: clarification on cellphone privacy

Here’s a criminal law hypothetical to ponder. Just suppose that you’re arrested on a drunk driving charge in North Carolina or some other state. In taking account of your possessions while booking you, police officers note your cellphone.

They take more than a cursory look at it, noting recent texts and called numbers. Based on that information and a bit of further probing, they are able to trace your recent purchase of marijuana and file criminal charges against you for that offense.

Is that legal? Can they do that?

Courts across the country will now with near certainty point to a recent United States Supreme Court opinion holding that, absent compelling circumstances, police officers cannot take such liberties with an individual’s cellphone. Doing so will almost certainly open them up to a constitutional Fourth Amendment challenge based upon unlawful search and seizure of evidence.

In a strong display of solidarity rarely seen in recent years, the nation’s highest court ruled unanimously in a case holding announced last week that law enforcement officers need to secure a warrant for most cellphone searches. That requirement holds true, wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., unless police officers are facing a so-called “now or never” situation in which their safety is threatened or there is a distinct possibility that relevant evidence could be imminently destroyed.

The court’s opinion cited the great changes that evolving technology has wrought in modern life, with wide-ranging and comprehensive data construed as being private now being mobile and carried by people in their hands.

“Privacy comes at a cost,” wrote the chief justice in noting that the court’s ruling will challenge police departments. In so stating, though, Roberts also noted that new technologies can be used by police officers to secure warrants quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes.

A New York Times article discussing the ruling states that its reach will likely extend far beyond cellphones to encompass computer tablets and laptops. We will keep readers abreast of any material developments that occur in the wake of this important judicial opinion.

Source: The New York Times, "Major ruling shields privacy of cellphones, "Adam Liptak, June 25, 3014

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