Judges and lawmakers across the country are wrangling over whether and when law enforcement authorities can peer into suspects’ cellphones, and the cornucopia of evidence they provide.
A Rhode Island judge threw out cellphone evidence that led to a man being charged with the murder of a 6-year-old boy, saying the police needed a search warrant. A court in Washington compared text messages to voice mail messages that can be overheard by anyone in a room and are therefore not protected by state privacy laws.In Louisiana, a federal appeals court is weighing whether location records stored in smartphones deserve privacy protection, or whether they are “business records” that belong to the phone companies.“The courts are all over the place,” said Hanni Fakhoury, a criminal lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group. “They can’t even agree if there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages that would trigger Fourth Amendment protection.”The issue will attract attention on Thursday when a Senate committee considers limited changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that regulates how the government can monitor digital communications. Courts have used it to permit warrantless surveillance of certain kinds of cellphone data.A proposed amendment would require the police to obtain a warrant to search e-mail, no matter how old it was, updating a provision that currently allows warrantless searches of e-mails more than 180 days old.
Do we have any privacy any more?Nearly three years later, in a 190-page ruling, Judge Savage sharply criticized the police.The first police officer had no right to look at the phone without a search warrant, Judge Savage ruled. It was not in “plain view,” she wrote, nor did Ms. Oliver give her consent to search it. The court said Mr. Patino could reasonably have expected the text messages he exchanged with Ms. Oliver to be free from police scrutiny.The judge then suppressed the bounty of evidence that the prosecution had secured through warrants, including the text message that had initially drawn the police officer’s attention.“Given the amount of private information that can be readily gleaned from the contents of a person’s cellphone and text messages — and the heightened concerns for privacy as a result — this court will not expand the warrantless search exceptions to include the search of a cellphone and the viewing of text messages,” she wrote.Mr. Patino remains in jail while the case is on appeal in the state’s Supreme Court. A lawyer for Mr. Patino did not respond to a request for comment.Just months before Judge Savage’s ruling, the Rhode Island legislature passed a law compelling the police to obtain a warrant to search a cellphone, even if they find it during an arrest. Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, an independent, vetoed the bill, saying, “The courts, and not the legislature, are better suited to resolve these complex and case-specific issues.”