The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last week ruled that police officers are not required to obtain a search warrant before they can search an arrestee's cell phone call list following an arrest.
In the case of Commonwealth v. Demetrius A. Phifer, the state's highest court rules that a search of a drug dealer's cell phone call list was not a constitutional violation because it was a limited search and they had probable cause to believe the recent call list would reveal evidence relating to the crime for which he was arrested.
The defendant in this case was arrested after Boston Police allegedly saw him get into a car with a known drug use and engage in actions they believed was a drug transaction. After the police pulled his car over, they got his cell number and checked it against the cellphone they had seized from the buyer and determined the number was in the other's call list.
This search, the court ruled, was a lawful search incident to arrest.
Notably, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court left undecided and did not go as far to making a bright-line rule that a search of a cell phone incident to arrest is valid under all circumstances; and if so, to what extent.
In limiting its decision, the court also did not go as far as extending this ruling to other areas of cell phone contents, such as texts and e-mails.
The court's decision, unfortunately, could lead to further constitutional violations by police and law enforcement in general. With vague parameters, police will undoubtedly now further exploit the constitutional limits of this case and certainly try to extend the scope of what is permissible to other areas.
Practically speaking, there is no need for this ruling, as it just gives the police unfettered authority to search for evidence without restrictions. The alternative, which would be requiring police to obtain a warrant before conducting a cell phone search, would ensure that police have the requisite probable cause to conduct such a search.
Further, there would be no harm in requiring police to get a warrant. Arguably, the person is already arrested and the cell phone is already in evidence so there is no danger that the contents on the phone might be damaged or destroyed. By requiring a warrant to be obtained, all citizens' constitutional rights would be fully protected.
Notably, in reaching its decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court relied, in part, on a California case which held that "...although an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy is diminished concerning his or her physical person when subject to a lawful arrested and taken into custody, 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 reality, however, is that cell phones today are not the cell phones of even 5 years ago. Where most people today now store very personal and highly information on the phones (credit card info., bank accounts, personal contacts and communications, etc. etc.), the public today does, in fact, perceive their cell phone and the data within to be very personal and confidential, not meant for the public. We do, therefore, have a tremendous expectation of privacy in these devices and the court's ruling here, unfortunately, contradicts this reality.
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