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Cell Phones and Search Warrants

As cell phones become an increasingly important possession in everyday life in California and across the globe, understanding their place in a criminal investigation is increasingly important. Since these serve not only as a communication device but also a computer, organizer and address book, the Supreme Court has determined that it is a violation of a citizen's rights to have his or her phone searched illegally.

As CNN reported, a ruling in 2014 confirmed that law enforcement must have a search warrant before looking through the cell phone of a person suspected of a crime. Unlike wallets and briefcases, cell phones are not subject to immediate search upon arrest without a warrant, even if there is "probable cause." Excluding phones from this initial search establishes a right to privacy for citizens, and was considered a win for privacy advocates. This ruling includes information being stored on a device, such as contact information, photos and video and text messages.

A new case that will be heard by the Supreme Court, according to NBC News, will establish whether or not officers are able to access user data that is not stored on a device without a warrant. The information at issue in the case is cell phone tower information that the phone company stores. Each time a user sends or receives calls and texts, the nearest cell phone tower is accessed. Law enforcement has used this information in cases, without search warrants, to track the movements of suspects based on the cell phone towers they were near. The case, which the high court will hear in the fall, will determine whether or not this usage data is accessible to officers without probable cause.

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