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U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on warrantless phone searches

When residents of California and other states interact with police officers in their communities, the contact is often friendly and encouraging on both sides. Police departments across the country unquestionably play a vital role in promoting safety and keeping the peace.

Given the plenary powers of police officers, though, and their commanding presence while in uniform, interaction with the public can sometimes be tense and uncertain.

That can often be true when a person who has been arrested -- or sometimes simply stopped -- is asked to submit to a police search of his or her personal belongings.

American criminal law is at that point centrally marked by a time-honored balancing line regarding search and seizure that is enunciated in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

That is this: Police officers must refrain from searching for evidence of any alleged crime in the absence of probable cause that criminal activity has occurred. If probable cause does exist, they must obtain a search warrant from an impartial judicial official prior to engaging in a personal search, except in very limited cases.

When constitutional requirements are not adhered to, illegal search and seizure activities result.

That is flatly problematic when what is being searched is a person’s home, office, computers, papers and other personal effects.

Increasingly troublesome, notes a legal analyst in a recent article discussing the Fourth Amendment, is the growing degree to which mobile phones are becoming search targets for police following arrests.

That writer notes that when police have warrantless access to a person’s cell phone, “they can access your entire life.”

That would certainly seem to be true, given the capabilities of today’s smartphones.

In fact, the issue couldn’t be timelier, with the United States Supreme Court hearing arguments today in two cases where the central question focuses on the degree to which police can engage in warrantless phone searches after they have arrested an individual.

We will be sure to provide readers with an update on the Court’s rulings.

Source: CNN, "Will cops be free to search your phone?" Danny Cevallos, A;pril 28, 2014

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