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High court says warrants required for search of cell phones

Search and seizure issues are important to explore in criminal defense cases. Police do not have the ability to do anything they please when dealing with criminal suspects, and failure to respect the privacy rights of suspects can impact the viability of a criminal case.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision issued earlier this week expanded privacy protections for criminal suspects. The case dealt with the ability of police to search the contents of cell phones without first obtaining a search warrant. Police are normally required to obtain a warrant to conduct a search unless some exception applies. The decision rejected the argument that searching the cell phone of a criminal suspect was like searching their wallet, purse or other item on their person.

The court rightly recognized that cell phones—particularly of the smart variety—provide access to scores of information and can hardly be compared to the contents of a wallet or purse. Most people who carry around a cell phone do have an expectation of privacy with respect to the contents of the phone. Because of this, it was decided, a warrant is required.

Potential exceptions to the rule are in cases where police reasonable fear for their own or others' safety or when police fear the loss or destruction of evidence of criminal activity, though the right application of such exceptions has yet to be defined. The issue is bound to come up in more and more cases, including those involving drug crimes.

Criminal defendants who believe they have been subjected to improper police search or seizure should work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure the issue is thoroughly explored in building a solid defense case.

Source: Politico, "SCOTUS rules warrants needed for cellphone search," Josh Gerstein & Tal Kopan, June 25, 2014.

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