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Do felony charges mean giving up privacy of a smartphone?

Ohio residents may not be aware that this was the question before the United States Supreme Court on May 6. The court heard oral arguments regarding two cases involving searches of cell phones seized during a warrantless search upon arrest for either misdemeanor or felony charges. The court's anticipated decision could advance the laws into the digital age, or leave them as they are now.

The way things are now, the police are allowed to conduct a search at the time an individual is arrested without first obtaining a warrant. However, that search is limited to the items and/or information a person is carrying on them. The country's forefathers could not have anticipated the technological advancements that led to smartphones. The amount of information a person can keep on a smartphone may have filled several rooms a few centuries ago.

Now, a person can keep nearly his or her whole personal life on a smartphone. Admittedly, this may include evidence of criminal activity on some people's phones, which is a compelling reason for law enforcement officials and prosecutors to want the law regarding a warrantless search to remain unchanged. Proponents of a change to the existing search procedure point out that authorities can obtain a warrant for a seized phone before looking at the information. However, authorities say that information can be erased from the devices remotely, and there is no foolproof way to keep this from happening.

Prosecutors contend that cell phone searches are only conducted in certain cases. However, there is nothing to prevent an abuse of power under current laws. An individual in Ohio facing felony charges currently has no guarantee that his or her personal information unrelated to the current charges is safe from prying eyes if seized during a warrantless search. Depending on how the court rules, that could change.

Source: upr.org, "Weighing The Risks Of Warrantless Phone Searches During Arrests", Nina Totenberg, May 1, 2014

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