Wednesday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that police must obtain a search warrant before searching the contents of smartphones seized from suspects will affect patrol officers, but likely will have a minimal impact on criminal investigations overall, local law enforcement officials said.
The ruling stemmed from a 2009 case in which a San Diego police officer seized reputed gang member David Riley’s cellphone and found images that depicted gang activity. An attorney argued that the search was unconstitutional, but a judge rejected the argument.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court held that smartphones contain a wealth of personal data and shouldn’t be treated the same as other physical evidence or weapons seized during arrests.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Kent Wegener of the Major Crimes Bureau said the agency is “complying as directed in the ruling.” He said the department already had been obtaining such warrants “in the vast majority of cases.”
“The ruling will likely affect patrol (units) more than our investigative units,” Wegener said.
Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Andy Neiman told KNX radio that investigators in the past have been able to obtain crucial information from suspects’ smartphones.
“But now, we’ll do what the courts say, as we always do, and we’ll abide by their recommendations, and we’ll just have to obtain search warrants from this point forward,” Neiman said.
He acknowledged that a delay in conducting such a search could allow suspects to delete key information from the phones.
“We’ll have to take precautions and use measures to ensure that we’re able to recover and safely secure evidence,” Neiman told KNX.
The ruling was called “revolutionary” by the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today’s decision is itself revolutionary and will help protect the privacy rights of all Americans,” said Steven R. Shapiro, national legal director of the ACLU.
“We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognized, our old values still apply and limit the government’s ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives,” Shapiro said.
State authorities argued that if police had to wait for a warrant to search a cellphone, evidence could be erased remotely.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the high court’s opinion.
“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought.”