Monday, December 28, 2009

Ohio Supreme Court Holds Cell Phone is Private-Warrant Required

Ever left your phone somewhere only to find your friends have sent or read your text messages or worse? The Ohio Supreme Court ruled this month that the police need a warrant to search a cellphone. The court rightly recognized that cellphones hold a wealth of personal information and that it is reasonable for people to have a expectation of privacy in their phone. See State of Ohio v. Smith (available here). The New York Times carried an interesting op-ed piece excerpted here. (full article here).

Searches generally require warrants, but courts have carved out limited categories in which they are not needed. One of these is that police officers are allowed, when they arrest people, to search them and the area immediately surrounding them, as well as some kinds of containers in their possession.

When the police arrested Antwaun Smith on drug charges they seized his cellphone and searched it, examining his call records. The police did not have a warrant or the consent of Mr. Smith.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled this month, by a 4-to-3 vote, that the search violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Rather than seeing a cellphone as a simple closed container, the majority noted that modern cellphones — especially ones that permit Internet access — are “capable of storing a wealth of digitized information.”

This is information, the court said, for which people reasonably have a high expectation of privacy, and under established Fourth Amendment principles, police officers must get a search warrant before they can look through call logs or examine other data. The court wisely decided that it made no sense to try to distinguish among various kinds of cellphones based on what specific functions they have. All cellphones, the court said, fall under the search warrant requirement.

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