Courts, States remain Divided over Cell Phone Searches

The New York Times today reviewed the state of the law regarding the legality of law enforcement searches of cell phones without warrants today.

Judges and lawmakers across the country are wrangling over whether and when law enforcement authorities can peer into suspects’ cellphones, and the cornucopia of evidence they provide.

(…)“The courts are all over the place,” said Hanni Fakhoury, a criminal lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group. “They can’t even agree if there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages that would trigger Fourth Amendment protection.”

The issue will attract attention on Thursday when a Senate committee considers limited changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that regulates how the government can monitor digital communications. Courts have used it to permit warrantless surveillance of certain kinds of cellphone data.  A proposed amendment would require the police to obtain a warrant to search e-mail, no matter how old it was, updating a provision that currently allows warrantless searches of e-mails more than 180 days old.

Recently, in Rhode Island, in the case of State v. Patino, C.A. No. 10-1155, Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Judith C. Savage ruled that Michael Patino, a man accused of the 2009 killing of his girlfriend’s 6-year-old son, (1) had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his text messages and (2) that evidence from his cell phone was collected illegally, before police obtained search warrants.

The Court also ruled that because of the illegal search, almost all the evidence obtained by police – including the text messages, all cell phones and their contents, all cell phone records, and critical portions of the Defendant‘s videotaped statement and his written statement given to the police – was tainted and could not be used at trial.

“Cell phones have replaced telephones. People send and receive billions of text messages to and from their cell phones daily. Text messaging, especially among young adults, has become an oft-employed substitute for face-to-face conversations, cell phone conversations, or email. Accordingly, this court finds that it is objectively reasonable for people to expect the contents of their electronic text messages to remain private.

Read the full opinion here.

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