No Warrant Needed to Search a Cellphone, Court Says

A recent Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion upheld the warrantless search of the cellphone of a man arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking. Although this opinion is only binding in the Seventh Circuit, it could be persuasive in other federal courts - including those in North Carolina - should a similar question of law be raised. The decision will undoubtedly impact the privacy rights of everyone, including those charged with various crimes such as drug possession and trafficking.

Cellphone Search

In the Seventh Circuit case, the suspected drug dealer was allegedly overheard setting up a methamphetamine sale on his cellphone by an undercover officer. The undercover officer believed that the sale would lead to the arrest of the alleged dealer and his supplier. Eventually, the police did arrest the two suspects.

At the scene of the arrest, officers searched the vehicles and found three cellphones. Officers turned on each of the cellphones to obtain the owners' cell phone numbers. The numbers were then later used by the prosecution to subpoena several months of phone records, which they intended to introduce at trial.

Ultimately, both suspects were convicted but appealed the decision that permitted the warrantless search of the cellphones. A three justice panel ruled that the warrantless search was similar to the search of a diary. According to the opinion, turning the phone on and locating the number did not involve a search of contents, according to the justices, and is a "modest cost" to an individual's privacy.

The judges further opined that the officers had a short window of opportunity to obtain the information before it was lost. New technology makes it possible to remotely wipe all information from a cellphone; therefore, the time that it would have taken to obtain a warrant could have resulted in the loss of valuable information. Critics of the ruling argue that turning off the phone is enough to stop this from happening.

Nonetheless, it cannot be disputed that this ruling has only further limited individual privacy rights in a world where privacy is becoming a scarce commodity, even if the Justices feel it is just a "modest cost" to our privacy. It is beginning to appear that there is nothing and nowhere that is truly private anymore.