San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the Oregon Supreme Court to block warrantless searches of arrestees' cell phones Friday, arguing in an amicus brief that granting law enforcement free rein to search data on the devices violates basic privacy protections guaranteed by the Constitution.
Other state supreme courts have considered the issue, but they have split in their rulings.
In this case, a criminal suspect was arrested and placed in a holding cell. Forty minutes after the arrest, without a warrant, an investigator fished through the suspect's cell phone looking for evidence related to his alleged crime. Law enforcement officials claim they didn't need a warrant because the search was "incident to arrest" -- an exception to the warrant requirement intended to allow officers to perform a search for weapons or to prevent evidence from being destroyed in exigent circumstances.
"This is an empty excuse from the police -- the suspect was in custody and unable to destroy evidence on his cell phone," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable intrusions by the police and ensures that a neutral magistrate decides when the police can search private information. There was no need for the police to sidestep the warrant process here. If courts give police the freedom to rummage through the cell phones of anyone they arrest, then the constitutional protection of the warrant process is meaningless."
The average cell phone now includes much more than your calling history. It holds address books, calendars, and emails -- along with websites you've visited, pictures of your family and friends, and often things like lists of questions to ask your doctor or your accountant. This makes questions of privacy in cell phone data critically important.
"Of course, criminal suspects could have information on their cell phones that might be of interest to police. When investigators have enough information to get a warrant, they should be able to search them," said Hofmann. "But judges should not allow a narrow exception to the warrant requirement to swallow the basic rule meant to protect everyone's privacy rights."
EFF's local counsel in this case is J. Ashlee Albies of Creighton & Rose, PC. Mr. Nix is represented by Bronson James, of JDL Attorneys, LLP. Petitioner's briefing is available at http://www.jdlattorneys.com.
For EFF's full amicus brief:
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation