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Does law enforcement need a warrant to rifle through a cellphone?

People in Baton Rouge may use cellphones or smartphones to keep on schedule, to communicate over the Internet and countless other functions that we seem to take for granted in today’s technological world. The advances in technology in recent years may seem staggering to some, while to others, instant access to many places through a cellphone may seem rather commonplace. For many people, a cellphone may act similar to an organizer, or to a desk used at home.

In court, cellphones have been the subject of Fourth Amendment disputes in many parts of the country for some time. Criminal defense lawyers have argued that due to the nature of today’s technology, law enforcement should have to have a warrant to rifle through the contents of a cellphone. Differing results have been noted in different parts of the country—the United States Supreme Court Friday accepted review of the issue in two separate cases.

One of the cases involves a drug crime case where a man on the East Coast challenged law enforcement’s use of his cellphone to raid his home. He had a more rudimentary flip-type cellphone. While in custody, the cellphone rang and displayed the phrase “my home” as the caller.

Police used that information without a warrant to find the man’s address in a reverse directory. His criminal defense lawyers successfully argued that police unlawfully searched the cellphone for information without first obtaining a warrant.

A second case involves a smartphone on the West Coast that police searched without a warrant after arresting a man for driving with a suspended license. Police claimed that weapons were also found in the car after they decided to arrest the man. But, they searched a smartphone without a warrant and claim that pictures and other info on the device linked him to other crimes and alleged gang affiliation.

In that case, appellate rulings had held that no warrant is necessary to search a cellphone if the device was found to be immediately associated with the person—essentially if the phone was pulled out of a pocket, purse, from a belt clip or with a similar direct connection to the person.

The Supreme Court will resolve the Fourth Amendment issue later this term, with arguments expected in April.

Source: The Washington Post, “Supreme Court to decide case on police cellphone searches,” Robert Barnes, Jan. 17, 2014

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