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Supreme Court cellphone case answers one question, raises others

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a decision that addresses a particularly modern application of the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures: When can police search the contents of a person’s cellphone?

In answer to that question, the Court held that police generally need a warrant before they may search a person’s cellphone, even in the context of an arrest. This draws a distinction between cellphones and other types of property that people carry with them, such as purses and backpacks, which police are generally permitted to search without a warrant when conducting an arrest.

The Court’s decision in the case was unanimous, which is notable in such a controversial area of the law. However, the ruling raises even more questions than it answers. 

When police arrest someone, the recent decision does not prevent from seizing the person’s cellphone and storing it until a search warrant can be obtained. Thus, in many cases the cellphone search may still ultimately occur, but not until a judge has confirmed that there is probable cause to justify the search.

Once the data from a person’s cellphone has been seized, one of the questions that has yet to be answered is how long police may store that seized data. Another question is whether a criminal suspect can be forced to reveal the password to a locked phone, and if so under what circumstances.

These and other unsettled issues relating to police searches of mobile devices will likely be addressed on a state-by-state basis, which means that Minnesota’s approach may differ from those of other states -- at least until the matter is once again taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Source: CNET, "SCOTUS cell phone case may hold big repercussions (Q&A)," Ben Fox Rubin, July 7, 2014

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