Cell Phone Issues

Everyone has a cell phone these days.  And we do a lot of our daily tasks on our cell phones.  They really are mini computers, not merely our primary way of communicating to one another. Like watches used to be, we feel naked when discovering we don’t have our phone. It is almost always with us.  That is probably a good thing.  However, if you engage in criminal conduct, cell phones have become a major problem as they contain a lot of information about where we are, where we have been, who we communicate with, and what we communicate.

Privacy issues with cell phones are heating up in a variety of contexts.  To what extent does the 4th Amendment protect citizens from police intrusion into the data stored or transmitted by our cell phones?  Let’s look at two of the major issues moving their way through the courts.

Warrantless Search Of Cell Phones.

The United States Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in two cases dealing with the warrantless search of an arrestee’s cell phone, U.S. v. Wurie and Riley v. California.  The government contends that police should be permitted to search the content of a person’s cell phone, without a warrant based upon probable cause, whenever that person is under arrest.  The government claims the “search incident to an arrest” exception to the warrant requirement is applicable.  This particular exception is well established.

Police are allowed to rummage through your pockets and open your pack of cigarettes to see whats inside before they place you in the cruiser and take you downtown.  The idea behind the exception is that if the police are going to take someone into custody, it is reasonable for them to search the person for evidence or weapons in order to prevent destruction of evidence and to protect officers. Because the 4th Amendment only prohibits “unreasonable searches,” a warrantless search under these circumstances is constitutional.

The incident to arrest exception has been extended to permit warrantless searches of the areas immediately surrounding the physical location of the arrestee.  This is often referred to as the “Chimel” area, which is named after the Supreme Court case in which the rule was established.  The Chimel area consists of drawers, cabinets, and closets within the reach of the arrestee.  Subsequent cases further give police the right to search the interior of a car where a person in arrested.

At one time, police were actually allowed to search the interior of a car in which an arrestee had recently been, but was no longer located.  In other words, up until recently, the supreme court had allowed police to observe someone exit a vehicle, arrest them outside of the vehicle, secure the person in the back of a cruiser and then search the interior of the vehicle in order to prevent the arrested person from destroying evidence or grabbing a weapon.

One can see the justification for searching the guys physical person and areas he can reach.  That actually has some logic.  But, the question now is why would police need to search the data on a cell phone?  No one hides weapons or drugs in a cell phone.  And if they are worried about the guy destroying evidence on the cell phone, they can simply seize it and obtain a warrant to search.  To my knowledge, no criminals I’ve ever met can delete illegal content on a cell phone with his handcuffs on.

The obvious answer as to why police do not want to have to get a warrant is that they might not have any probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime on the phone. They want to get the guy’s contacts so they know who he gets his drugs from and who he sells to.  The state can’t just come out and say that, though, so they made up a lot of illogical reasons why searching the phone would promote to two overriding policies behind the exception: (1) preservation of evidence and (2) officer safety.

While I don’t know how the supremes are going to view the case, we already have a ruling in our great state.  The Supreme Court of Ohio has already held that police must get a warrant to search the content of a cell phone taken from an arrestee.  In State v. Smith, the Court stated in summation:

“We hold that the warrantless search of data within a cell phone seized incident to a lawful arrest is prohibited by the Fourth Amendment when the  search is unnecessary for the safety of law-enforcement officers and there are no exigent circumstances. Because the state failed to show that either of these exceptions to the warrant requirement applied, the search of Smith’s cell phone was improper, and the trial court was required to exclude from evidence the call records and phone numbers taken from the cell phone.”

It will be interesting to see how SCOTUS rules.

Third Party Data

Another important question related to cell phones is to what extent does someone have the right to prevent government intrusion into data conveyed to third parties (i.e., the provider’s records or the webpages visited, etc). The answer here is, not much.  The 4th Amendment precludes the government from searching or infringing on reasonable privacy interests.  If a person subjectively has a reasonable expectation of privacy and society objectively recognizes that expectation as reasonable, 4th amendment protections apply.  The government must then have probable cause to invade that protected interest.

If, however, the claimed privacy interest is not reasonable, the 4th amendment is not implicated and the police may search and seize as they see fit.  By way of illustration, it would be a violation of the 4th Amendment for the police to bug your home and listen to your living room conversations (without a warrant).  But, if you have that same conversation in a coffee shop, the police are fully entitled to sit at the table next to you and eavesdrop.  It is unreasonable for someone to believe that his public conversations couldn’t be overheard by third parties, whether detectives or the nosy neighbor-type. If you didn’t want others to hear what you said, you should have said it in a private place.

The idea that whatever information you voluntarily provide to others is no longer “private” has allowed the government to get all sorts of information on prospective defendants from telecommunications companies.  Once you send information via cell phone to third parties, that information is no longer subject to the 4th Amendment’s protections.   Police will not need a warrant.  They may not even need a subpoena, depending on how helpful the company wants to be.

This issue is illustrated by the Second District’s recent decision in State v. Taylor, 2014-Ohio-2550.  Taylor, his brother and a third accomplice had driven from his home in Detroit, Michigan to Dayton, Ohio.  Rather than taking in a Dragon’s game, they held up a pawn shop.  Bullets proceeded to fly and after the dust settled, two people were dead – the pawn shop owner and the accomplice.  Taylor was ultimately convicted of two counts of murder.

At the trial court level, Taylor filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the warrantless searches of his cell phones, including GPS data that tracked his location at various times as he traveled to and from the crime scene.   The police had submitted a request form to the telecommunications provider requesting the “ping” history of two cell phones.  As the decision states, “pings are GPS locations that are [emitted] from phones that will give geographic location of the phone, and it will range usually in meters …” Essentially, the cell phone pings provided a map of everywhere Taylor had been, which, unfortunately for him, included the pawn shop at the time of the murders.

Taylor claimed that the tracking of the cell phone pings constituted a search and required a warrant.  The court overruled his motion, determining that he had no legitimate expectation of privacy in this information collected and stored by the phone company.  The Appellate panel agreed.

The decision cites several cases in which information conveyed to third party providers loses any expectation of privacy, including electricity usage bills and phone logs collected by the phone company. Therefore, the information is not protected by the Fourth Amendment.  Not only do the police not need a warrant, they don’t even need probable cause.  As part of its analysis, the Second District included the following quote:

“The Supreme Court has held repeatedly that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the obtaining of information revealed to a third party and conveyed by him to Government authorities, even if the information is revealed on the assumption that it will be used only for a limited purpose and the confidence placed in the third party will not be betrayed.”

That pretty much sums it up.  Just because you may not expect the police to be snooping around your cell phone records, or anticipate that your service provider will allow them, doesn’t mean it is unconstitutional.  Anything you voluntarily convey to third parties is not protected by the 4th Amend and is fair game for authorities to search and seize.

US v. Wurie and Riley v. California

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