State Supreme Court limits police searches of cell phones

Tuesday, December 15, 2009 9:44 AM
By James Nash

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  • Click here to read today's Supreme Court decision (PDF).

Police can't search the contents of a cell phone without a warrant unless they have reason to think their lives are in danger, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today in a split decision.
The court said a cell phone is not a "container" -- whose contents police may examine without a warrant -- but closer to a computer, which requires a warrant to search.
In a 4-3 ruling, the court said police in Greene County overstepped their authority in 2007 by seizing a cell phone from a suspected drug trafficker and looking at call logs to verify contact with an informant.
The trafficker, Antwaun Smith, contended that police had violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.
"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," Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote for the majority.
"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."
Lanzinger was joined by Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and Maureen O'Connor.
Dissenting were Justices Robert R. Cupp, Terrence O'Donnell and Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.
"As the majority opinion recognizes, a cell phone's digital address book is akin to traditional address books carried on the person," Cupp wrote for the trio. "Courts have upheld police officers' search of an address book found on an arrestee's person during a search incident to a lawful arrest. ... The phone's call list is similar, showing a list of telephone numbers that called to or were called from the phone.
"Thus, I would hold that the search here -- which resembles police officers' search of a traditional address book found on the person of an arrestee during a search incident to arrest -- is permissible under the Fourth Amendment."