Cell phone search legality an increasingly important issue

When it comes to criminal cases involving drug charges, the legality of police searches is an important issue defense attorneys look out for. While the rules police are required to follow are fairly well laid out, issues can arise from time to time, particularly as technology develops and officers have to contend with new or changed expectations of privacy.

Right now, courts are grappling with the issue of whether it is considered a search for police to look at the contents of a suspect’s cell phone, and under what circumstances and for what purposes a warrant is required when police do search such phones. Courts in Texas and Washington recently dealt with this issue and came down in favor of privacy.

In Texas, the rule is now that inmates do have an expectation of privacy in the contents of a cell phone. Because of this, officers must obtain a search warrant to search the contents of cell phones. In Washington, a similar conclusion was also reached. Specifically, officers are not able to intercept conversations—in this case the issue was text messages—on cell phones without a warrant.

So far, state courts have taken the lead in emphasizing privacy on this issue. The U.S. Supreme Court is soon to make a decision in two separate cases, and it remains to be seen which way the court will go, but many are hopeful that privacy will also be emphasized at the federal level. We will keep our readers on developments on this issue.

Source: Eff.org, “Two New Decisions Strengthen Cell Phone Privacy in Texas and Washington,” Hanni Fakhoury, February 28, 2014. 

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