In 2014, the Supreme Court redefined cell phones. They deemed the devices as going beyond “technological convenience” into the realm of US citizens’ “privacies of life.” Law enforcement looking to access the data would need a search warrant.
Fast forward to today. Federal and state courts remain at odds. Even if a warrant is secured, how do police officers proceed, and what are the limitations of a smart device search?
A ruling lacking standards?
With the high court ruling came a glaring lack of standards to limit these types of searches, leaving each court to interpret independently. Some searches are limited while others are universal with investigations resulting in viewing all device data.
The divide was on full display in August when two separate courts ruled on their own respective cases.
In Richardson v. State, the Maryland Court of Appeals stood on the side of privacy concerns and the rights that exist when police secure warrants to search cell phones. Conversely, in the United States v. Morton, the full Fifth Circuit decided not to weigh in on broad searches, citing the good faith that officers relied on to secure a warrant. They were entitled to search specific areas of the phone’s data.
Privacy advocates saw the latter decision as a setback for cell phone protection. Beyond purported evidence, devices are stored with highly personal information that deems protections by the Fourth Amendment, similar to the ruling in Richardson. The search’s scope could place investigators on another path after discovering data that was irrelevant to the issues at hand.
The simple solution for numerous courts is to tailor cell phone warrants to the specific crime being investigated. Anything more can create a rabbit hole that becomes standard operating procedure while violating the rights of those facing potentially harsher criminal charges.