Can Police Read Text Messages Without a Warrant?
San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the Washington State Supreme Court Monday to recognize that text messages are "the 21st Century phone call" and require that law enforcement officers obtain a warrant before reading texts on someone's phone.
"Text messages are a ubiquitous form of communication, and their context can be as private as any telephone conversation," said EFF Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury. "We use texts to talk to our wives and husbands, our kids, our co-workers, and more. Police should not be able to sift through these personal exchanges on a whim – they must show probable cause and get a warrant before accessing this information."
In this case, police seized a cell phone during a drug investigation and monitored incoming messages. Officers responded to several texts, setting up meetings that resulted in two arrests, without first getting a warrant. Prosecutors have argued that no warrant was required because there should be no expectation of privacy in text messages, as anyone can pick up someone else's phone and read what's stored there. But in two related amicus briefs filed Monday, EFF argues that searching the phone for the texts without a warrant clearly violates the Constitution.
"The state argues that just because someone can intercept a communication, you should reasonably expect that communication to be intercepted. That's a dangerous way to interpret the Fourth Amendment," said Fakhoury. "The prosecutors' theory would eviscerate any privacy protections in the digital age. We're asking the Washington State Supreme Court here to recognize what's at stake and to require a warrant before allowing officers to read text messages on a cell phone."
Venkat Balasubramani of FOCAL PLLC in Seattle, Washington, served as EFF's local counsel in the cases.
For the full amicus briefs:
Electronic Frontier Foundation