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Can Police Search Your Cell Phone Without a Warrant?

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled police don't need a search warrant to look at a cell phone's call list after arresting the phone's owner. As courts around the country grapple with the issue, tell us: is this reasonable sear

What's the difference between personal information and correspondence you have physically stored in your home, and similar information that's on your cell phone? And what should police have access to without a warrant?

It's a question that courts across the nation are dealing with it and one that arose here in Massachusetts on Wednesday, when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that police don't need a search warrant to look at the call list of a person's cell phone while searching that person's personal property after an arrest.

However, in writing the court's opinion for Commonwealth vs. Demetrius A. Phifer, Justice Margot Botsford cited other court cases that raise questions about the extent that law enforcement officials can access information stored on a cell phone.

"Today's cellular telephones are essentially computers, capable of storing enormous quantities of information, personal, private, and otherwise, in many different forms," Botsford wrote. "They present novel and important questions about the relationship between the modern doctrine of search incident to arrest and individual privacy rights.

"Although an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy is diminished concerning his or her physical person when subject to a lawful arrest and taken into custody," she continued, "the same may not necessarily be true with respect to the privacy of the myriad types of information stored in a cellular telephone that he or she is carrying at the time of arrest."

The New York Times reported last month about divergent rulings in courts across the country regarding information stored on cell phones, such as a Rhode Island judge throwing out cellphone evidence obtained without a search warrant that led a man being charged with the murder of a 6-year-old boy.

A Washington court likened text messages to voice mail messages that can be overheard by anyone in a room, the Times reported, and ruled they are not protected by state privacy laws, while a federal appeals court in Louisiana is wrangling over whether location records stored in smartphones are private information or business records that belong to the phone companies.

Meanwhile, just last week the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that if passed would limit law enforcement officials' warrantless access to email, private Facebook posts and other information that's stored on the Internet. CNET.com reported that tech firms including Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter have urged Congress to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, passed in 1986, "and preserve the same privacy rights that Americans enjoy if their files are printed out and stored in a cabinet at home."

What should police be able to search on a cell phone without a warrant? The call log? Emails and private Facebook or Twitter messages? GPS location data that track where the phone has been? Should it all be fair game, should it all require a search warrant, or is it a mix? Tell us what you think in the comments.

justgettingwarmup December 08, 2012 at 01:14 PM
That reminds me of a story at local library...let me drink my coffee...ill be back
marc bowlen December 08, 2012 at 05:56 PM
The court ruling is Userped It is a clear violation of the constitution. The Police and their thug unions continue to violate the rights of it's citizens in conjunction with the Massachusetts Bar Association to promote litigation and longer court hours as well as police overtime!
Deb December 08, 2012 at 05:57 PM
Operative word here: "warrantless". If it's so integral, get a damn warrant, so everyone will be covered. Another potential mess: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57556704-38/cops-to-congress-we-need-logs-of-americans-text-messages/ This would be like telling USPS to store copies of (at the least) all envelopes. What is so different about a text message as compared to a phone conversation IRT privacy? The fact that they may be stored is no defense re: privacy violation.
Diana December 08, 2012 at 06:44 PM
People are on thier cells all the time, while in line, while talking to you, while on the bus, while watching thier kids play etc... If you want privacy don't make it all public. If your phone is on your dash, seat or in your hand or ear and you are out where the police see you doing somthing- No Privacy. If it is off and in your pocket (when the police stop you not after you've discarded other evidence and hid your phone) or zipped in your purse or in your home or locked in your locker then you have every expectation of privacy and be prepared to wait while the police get a warrant
marc bowlen December 08, 2012 at 07:10 PM
That's funny I see the police at detail sites all the time talking on their cellphones while getting paid overtime with taxpayer money! We should be able to search their phones!
John Merrett December 08, 2012 at 07:33 PM
The Police are sworn to uphold the Constitution, not to deny people their rights, but people also have a responsibility to know what their rights are.
bull December 08, 2012 at 07:52 PM
I have a story of women acting for police to obtain passwords to cell accounts to bypass a court order....and they think its over.....
Mark Chulsky December 08, 2012 at 07:54 PM
Sure, the police should get a warrant first, but they also should be able to arrest the phone too and not let the suspect erase sensitive calls and messages.
Jeff F. December 08, 2012 at 10:09 PM
Nothing you do on a cell phone (or on the internet) is ever really erased...you may think you erased it but a quick call to your cell phone provider would prove otherwise. So that changes nothing and they should still need a warrant. It is easier to ditch the physical phone (run it over, etc) than to get rid of your cell phone history.
Lisa Caron December 09, 2012 at 05:37 AM
The next time someone tells me we live in a free country,I'm gonna puke.
Jeff F December 09, 2012 at 04:10 PM
What???? Get some coffee in you before you post your nonsense here. "keeping quite" "Witchita now" "every library" Still recovering from some Saturday night partying?
mspsgt December 09, 2012 at 04:36 PM
A lot of police bashing going on here. Do you really think that a police officer will just walk up to you and grab your phone and review your activity? Looking at phones will only occur after an individual has been placed under arrest. That means they were doing something in violation of the law. Everyone wants to bash the cops until they they need one! Are there bad cops? Of course! Just like there are bad accountants, sales reps and barbers. No one, and no one profession is exempt! If you are not doing anything wrong then you should not be worried about what is on your phone.
Liz December 09, 2012 at 04:38 PM
if you have nothing to hide then who cares? we live in a scary and dangerous world today for both police and citizens!
Jeff F December 09, 2012 at 07:05 PM
You must be related to a cop....would you be okay with police walking into your house whenever they felt like it? If you are consistent in your "logic" then you would offer them a cup of coffee as long as you had "nothing to hide." It is about privacy and freedom. And, I am not "police bashing" mspsgt (curious that these supportive comments from Liz and mspsgt are just minutes after one another hmmm????) I respect law enforcement and appreciate the fact they they never know what kind of danger they will encounter when they put on that uniform. That being said, they need to do it within the confines of the law...this isn't Soviet Russia.
Mark Chulsky December 09, 2012 at 07:24 PM
I hope everyone who doesn't trust the police at least supports the right to bear arms. Otherwise whom do you expect to protect you when push comes to shove? Just my two cents.
pigbacon December 09, 2012 at 07:47 PM
That's true...in fact I need a gun do you have a extra
Sean Ward December 10, 2012 at 10:42 PM
Mark, I don't think this is a matter of trusting the police. It's a matter of freedom and privacy. I have nothing to hide. But I don't want to live in a police state where the guys with guns get to run around doing whatever they want. This country was founded on freedom and liberty. We've already given up so much of that in the name of security. We already have to strip, get felt up, have our stuff rummaged through and wait in giant lines to fly. We have video cameras looking at us everywhere we go. I'm all for letting the police investigate suspects but the warrent system is meant to make sure the cop on the beat can't just go strip search anyone he wants. Freedom and liberty means not having to be harrassed when you didn't do anything wrong just because a cop doesn't like the way you looked at him.
john December 10, 2012 at 11:12 PM
The key here is after the arrest. If you say or do stupid things in the wrong place you can get in trouble. Police find child porn on computers all the time. People want to live in the technology world but don't want the police too. If you have nothing to hide then you can't get caught but if you do have something to hide you should get caught.Honestly as a person who never owned a cell phone I find this humerous.
john December 10, 2012 at 11:21 PM
Let me also add,as long as the federal government is issuing phones to people on welfare,then we have every right in the world to have access to what they are doing.You can't buy booze and tobacco on food stamps,get it?
Citizen December 11, 2012 at 01:19 AM
Why can't officers ask for a search warrant first. If the search is justified to the alleged crime? Phone records, personal belongs, right to privacy. What exactly is being investigated that they can't ask for a justified warrant?
Mark Chulsky December 11, 2012 at 07:58 PM
Sean, You are talking about those who "didn't do anything wrong", and I think most of us agree the police may not search without a warrant. So, the folks in question may be not guilty, but in most of the cases there would be a probable cause for the search.
Pete N December 30, 2012 at 05:51 PM
Don't forget new foil for your space hat
Pete N December 30, 2012 at 05:51 PM
Failed the civil service test?
marc bowlen February 09, 2013 at 05:13 AM
No failed civil service test Pete N. I have to much intelligence tobe a lowly civil service employee of the userped corrupt P.O.S. government! I was a successful business owner and bought my house at age 26, and was ripped off and robbed by police and the Bar Association and all your Democrats you people continue to elect! I've been summonsed to court atleast a dozen times by police in retaliation for getting a cop fired, and the Bar Association's so called defense lawyers, district attorney's in collusion with the Magistrates have stolen about 50k in legal fees off me and never obtained a single conviction, they don't even go to trial, they get you in court, drain people's bank accounts to promote their practice of law and the police act as their cowboys to this practice! I'm sure their union gets them a cut of the action! The Bar Association has taken over this country through sedition and treason and have conspired to rob, steal, and economically enslave everybody with their well organized schemes!
millard Lewis March 31, 2013 at 10:51 AM
What drew me to this site was an episode of cops,they stopped the car for good reason ( unregistered ) and found out thd driver had a suspended license so off to jail this is the rule i have no problem. However the passengers record was clean but the police smelled marijuana and found an ounce of the stuff their eyes lit up with another arrest until the passenger pulled out his license to possess the pot.this man was NOT inviolation of the law and should have been sent on his way good job done let's take the driver to jail. But that is not what happened instead they put the man in handcuffs and than patted him down and took his cellphone out of his pocket ( an item not in plain site on a person acting with in the law) than they opened his message board ( also not in plain site ) and surfed through his PRIVATE conversations untill they found 1 they deemed suspicious and arrested him if you do not see this as a problem you are a fool. What if you were stopped for a tail light this is a reason to look at your phoneand they see " not now I'm driving " here its against the law and you would be fined so what happened to the 5th amendment.
millard Lewis March 31, 2013 at 11:05 AM
To ^^john I'm in a wheel chair and pay for my own phone but that program was designed for people likeand the elderly but even if you were on welfare why should you lose your rights . I think IF YOU ARE AN AMERICAN you should look into what it says on the statue of LIBERTY.

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