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Supreme Court will consider key cellphone search questions

When an individual is accused of criminal wrongdoing, he or she remains entitled to numerous protections under the law. If these protections are violated and the individual is convicted of wrongdoing partially or completely as a result of this violation, he or she may be able to have the conviction reversed by taking advantage of opportunities for criminal appeals. However, it is imperative that the system checks itself before these kinds of violations occur, whenever such checks are possible.

For example, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in a case that challenges current privacy-related protections for individuals who have been arrested. Currently, law enforcement officers must generally obtain a warrant before searching locations and property belonging to a suspect. Exceptions are made under numerous circumstances.

One legal exception to certain warrant requirements involves searching an arrested individual’s person before he or she is formally put into custody. Law enforcement officers are allowed to conduct these searches for public safety reasons. But what public safety reason could justify the routine search and seizure of information contained on or within arrestees’ cellphones?

Civil rights activists insist that searching this content without a warrant is an illegal invasion of privacy. Law enforcement officers insist that phones should not be treated differently than other objects found on a routine search of an arrestee. Will the Court err on the side of privacy or on the side of arguably misguided assumptions about what must be searched in order to maintain public safety? The answer to this question is currently unclear.

Source: Washington Post, “Supreme Court to decide case on police cellphone searches,” Robert Barnes, Jan. 17, 2014

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