Cell Phones & Your Privacy Rights

If you are arrested, police have the right to seize your cell phone and search it.  Currently, this law enforcement right is absolute and unqualified, but the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a unique criminal case to determine whether search warrants should be required to access phone numbers, text messages, photographs, and everything else which can be accessed from your smart phone data base.

In the case now before the Court (Riley v. California), the challenge to police cell phone access has been brought by activists for a homeless man who was arrested after pitching a tent on city property as part of a protest to city policy.  His cell phone was seized and information viewed.  Why?  Who knows.  Curious voyeurism is not a bad guess.

Justin Beiber is no stranger to this.  After he and/or his house guests egged a neighbor’s house, the Beib’s phone was confiscated by Sheriff deputies and information viewed.  Why?  The  Sheriffs said it was to see if he texted any messages to friends, boasting of his personal participation in the egging.  Oh.  Okay.  Not curious voyeurism; just good detective work.  I suppose that’s also why twelve deputies were used to search Beiber’s Calabassas home for this felonious egging.  Not curious voyeurism – just good detective work.  I am not a big fan of Justin Beiber, but I am a big fan of our Bill of Rights.  Especially that Fourth one.

If you are inclined to protect your privacy, the solution is not to simply delete information.  If you move on to another, newer phone, and you give away your old one, the new owner can access all your deleted files.  So also could a police forensic team if your phone is confiscated.  There are methods of permanently deleting information, but that is not the subject of this article.

In the case now being heard before the Supreme Court, I am inclined to believe that the Justices will find a middle ground between always requiring a warrant, and never.  The most likely result will be that the crime must have some likely connection to cell phone use, exigent (urgent) circumstances exist, and that deleted messages and calls cannot be viewed without a warrant (since the deleted information is likely to be what we call ‘legally stale’).  Our Law Office will keep you informed of the Supreme Court’s decision in this interesting case.