From Los Angeles to New York, and in San Diego, Chicago and Houston,
officials met to discuss Wednesday's unanimous ruling that could make it
harder for officers to quickly find incriminating evidence. The ruling
prohibits law enforcement from searching an arrestee's cellphone without
a warrant unless a person's safety or life may be in danger.
Because cellphone technology has so rapidly advanced over the last
decade, more information than ever before -- including personal
documents, photos and emails -- is now stored on these devices. For
investigators, they can be a treasure trove of suspects' pictures with
fellow gang members, not to mention text messages and call records that
help police find accomplices or victims.
Few, if any, in law enforcement circles were surprised by the high
court's ruling, and they said many cautious investigators were already
getting warrants to ensure evidence doesn't get tossed out of trials.
But they also universally acknowledged that it would make their jobs
more difficult, especially for the rank-and-file patrol officer.
"It's going to be more cumbersome, it's going to take more work, it's
going to take more time," said Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt. Kent
Wegener, of the Major Crimes Bureau. Wegener said his investigators
routinely seek search warrants for their cases.
In Houston, prosecutors were already treating cellphones as personal
property with privacy rights and advising police officers that if they
weren't given permission, they'd need a search warrant to access the devices, said Bill Exley, a prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney's office.
The Constitution's Fourth Amendment requires police generally to have
a judge sign a warrant that's based on "probable cause," or evidence
that a crime has been committed. But cellphones have been treated like
any other item in an arrestee's possession, meaning they could be
examined to ensure the officer's safety and prevent the destruction of
The Supreme Court's decision examined two cases that arose after
arrests in San Diego and Boston. In San Diego, police found indications
of gang membership when they looked through a defendant's smartphone,
and prosecutors used video and photographs from the phone to persuade a
jury to convict him of attempted murder and other charges. In Boston,
police used the call log on an arrested man's flip phone to lead them to
his home, where they found drugs, a gun and ammunition.
Thousands of pending court cases could be altered or dropped because
of what would now be considered illegally obtained evidence as a result
of the decision, said Oregon defense attorney Bronson James, who
authored an amicus brief for the plaintiffs. Whether that'll happen is
unclear, and prosecutors are working to limit the case's retroactive
The ruling may also ultimately challenge law enforcement's use of
other technology, James said, such as the U.S. government's bulk data
collection or the "Stingray," a device that sweeps up cellphone data in a
It can take anywhere from a few hours for a judge to sign off on a state search warrant to a few days for a federal one.
Though the ruling provides leeway for situations where a person's
safety or life is in danger, authorities have concerns about whether
information or opportunities might be missed. The San Diego County
district attorney's office has had conversations with law enforcement on
how to expedite search warrant requests when only a couple judges might be on call at night or over the weekend.
San Diego County's chief deputy district attorney, Summer Stephan,
said human traffickers often run their businesses from their cellphones,
arranging prices and schedules for girls and customers by text message.
Though the ruling allows for emergency situations, "sometimes you
don't know if you have that until you look," Stephan said. "You don't
know if the girl you were already able to rescue is the only girl until
you look at the phone and see if there's communication with another
The decision addresses worries that information may be erased
remotely, allowing police to seize the cellphone and turn it off or
remove its battery. Police can also place it in a special bag to isolate
it from radio waves.
Many departments, including Michigan State Police, are already giving
those bags to officers, said Douglas Godfrey, a former Kings County,
New York, prosecutor. But the bags aren't necessarily distributed widely
to patrol officers or in great supply. Such new measures would require a
financial investment and training.
"It certainly is true that if the police are just allowed to rummage
through the cellphone of any arrestee without a warrant they can find
all kinds of things that might be helpful," said David Sklansky, a UC
Berkeley law professor who's written on Fourth Amendment issues. "The
court recognizes that, but the court says that privacy is not costless.
Sometimes honoring the Constitution means that law enforcement does not
have advantages that it otherwise would have."