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Can Police Search Your Cell Phone Without a Warrant?

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled police don't need a search warrant to look at a cell phone's call list after arresting the phone's owner. As courts around the country grapple with the issue, tell us: is this reasonable sear

What's the difference between personal information and correspondence you have physically stored in your home, and similar information that's on your cell phone? And what should police have access to without a warrant?

It's a question that courts across the nation are dealing with it and one that arose here in Massachusetts on Wednesday, when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that police don't need a search warrant to look at the call list of a person's cell phone while searching that person's personal property after an arrest.

However, in writing the court's opinion for Commonwealth vs. Demetrius A. Phifer, Justice Margot Botsford cited other court cases that raise questions about the extent that law enforcement officials can access information stored on a cell phone.

"Today's cellular telephones are essentially computers, capable of storing enormous quantities of information, personal, private, and otherwise, in many different forms," Botsford wrote. "They present novel and important questions about the relationship between the modern doctrine of search incident to arrest and individual privacy rights.

"Although an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy is diminished concerning his or her physical person when subject to a lawful arrest and taken into custody," she continued, "the same may not necessarily be true with respect to the privacy of the myriad types of information stored in a cellular telephone that he or she is carrying at the time of arrest."

The New York Times reported last month about divergent rulings in courts across the country regarding information stored on cell phones, such as a Rhode Island judge throwing out cellphone evidence obtained without a search warrant that led a man being charged with the murder of a 6-year-old boy.

A Washington court likened text messages to voice mail messages that can be overheard by anyone in a room, the Times reported, and ruled they are not protected by state privacy laws, while a federal appeals court in Louisiana is wrangling over whether location records stored in smartphones are private information or business records that belong to the phone companies.

Meanwhile, just last week the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that if passed would limit law enforcement officials' warrantless access to email, private Facebook posts and other information that's stored on the Internet. CNET.com reported that tech firms including Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter have urged Congress to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, passed in 1986, "and preserve the same privacy rights that Americans enjoy if their files are printed out and stored in a cabinet at home."

What should police be able to search on a cell phone without a warrant? The call log? Emails and private Facebook or Twitter messages? GPS location data that track where the phone has been? Should it all be fair game, should it all require a search warrant, or is it a mix? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Pete N December 30, 2012 at 05:51 PM
Don't forget new foil for your space hat
Pete N December 30, 2012 at 05:51 PM
Failed the civil service test?
marc bowlen February 09, 2013 at 05:13 AM
No failed civil service test Pete N. I have to much intelligence tobe a lowly civil service employee of the userped corrupt P.O.S. government! I was a successful business owner and bought my house at age 26, and was ripped off and robbed by police and the Bar Association and all your Democrats you people continue to elect! I've been summonsed to court atleast a dozen times by police in retaliation for getting a cop fired, and the Bar Association's so called defense lawyers, district attorney's in collusion with the Magistrates have stolen about 50k in legal fees off me and never obtained a single conviction, they don't even go to trial, they get you in court, drain people's bank accounts to promote their practice of law and the police act as their cowboys to this practice! I'm sure their union gets them a cut of the action! The Bar Association has taken over this country through sedition and treason and have conspired to rob, steal, and economically enslave everybody with their well organized schemes!
millard Lewis March 31, 2013 at 10:51 AM
What drew me to this site was an episode of cops,they stopped the car for good reason ( unregistered ) and found out thd driver had a suspended license so off to jail this is the rule i have no problem. However the passengers record was clean but the police smelled marijuana and found an ounce of the stuff their eyes lit up with another arrest until the passenger pulled out his license to possess the pot.this man was NOT inviolation of the law and should have been sent on his way good job done let's take the driver to jail. But that is not what happened instead they put the man in handcuffs and than patted him down and took his cellphone out of his pocket ( an item not in plain site on a person acting with in the law) than they opened his message board ( also not in plain site ) and surfed through his PRIVATE conversations untill they found 1 they deemed suspicious and arrested him if you do not see this as a problem you are a fool. What if you were stopped for a tail light this is a reason to look at your phoneand they see " not now I'm driving " here its against the law and you would be fined so what happened to the 5th amendment.
millard Lewis March 31, 2013 at 11:05 AM
To ^^john I'm in a wheel chair and pay for my own phone but that program was designed for people likeand the elderly but even if you were on welfare why should you lose your rights . I think IF YOU ARE AN AMERICAN you should look into what it says on the statue of LIBERTY.

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