Decision to Come Over Warrantless Cell Phone Searches

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By Evie Allen

MARION -- The search of cell phones by police has stirred debate across the nation. The United States Supreme Court is considering if it's even legal to do so without a warrant. As it stands now, there is no clear law requiring a warrant to search cell phones.


In April, court justices suggested they might favor restricting some warrantless cell phone searches. If the ruling goes that way, those arrested for minor crimes may not be keen on the contents of their cell phones open to police inspection.


Our cell phones contain lots of personal information, like records, pictures, and access to email.


"It also contains intrinsic information that is part of that individual," adds Pulaski County State's Attorney Grayson Gile.


So, the debate of whether to search the smart phone of a person being arrested would be a touchy issue.


Police may need to act fast to collect evidence, but the individual may feel violated if an officer is violating their privacy.


Sergeant Angelo Hightower with the Marion Police Department says it's not an issue the department faces often.


"I don't think we should have unfettered access to people's cell phones. I mean, let's face it, people put their whole lives on their phones," he explains.


As a general rule, police must have a warrant before they can search a person's possessions. The long-standing exception is when a person is arrested, then police may conduct a full search. That law was created before cell phones existed, and Hightower hopes the court decision will be a fair one.


"It's going to be a balancing act between a person's privacy rights and the government interest of law enforcement to solve crimes," he says.


In order to obtain a warrant, it must first pass the hands of the local state's attorney. Gile says he evaluates the request before even going to the judge.


In most cases, search warrants are a requirement to go through a home. The question is whether or not cell phones should be viewed in the same private realm. Grayson believes so and says the officer should go ahead and take the time to get the warrant.


"The last thing in the world I would want to see is a case that's thrown out of court because we did not comply with the law or that we had over-stepped our bounds during the course of the investigation," says Gile.


Pope County officials say they've been recently getting warrants to search phones. This provides them insurance that information obtained won't be questioned in court.


The Supreme Court is expected to have a decision by the end of the month.
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