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Cell Phones and Searches

Technology is becoming increasingly pervasive in Americans’ everyday lives. More and more people have access to computers – many of which are portable (such as laptops or tablets) and may be part of the cadre of things that they don’t leave home without. In addition, more and more people are not only gaining access to cell phones, but they are gaining access to smartphones. Smartphones are becoming increasingly like smaller versions of computers, sometimes with additional capabilities. People can use their smartphones to browse the internet, to store documents and photographs, to record voice memos and videos, and to get GPS directions.

Many of these features occur automatically; someone who makes a Facebook post from their smartphone may automatically have their location attached to their post. Earlier this year, many news outlets reported on a feature on the iPhone that tracked the users’ location if he or she had “frequent locations” enabled on their phone – users could visit their iPhone settings and see a list of cities they had been to while they had their phones. Many iPhone users were unaware that this data was even being collected or stored on their phones. This rapidly evolving technology is posing new questions, not just about personal privacy and safety, but about how to deal with that expectation of privacy and civil rights in a criminal context.

Massachusetts High Court Ruling on Cell Phone GPS Data

Earlier this week, the Massachusetts Supreme Court reviewed the ability of law enforcement officers to obtain historical GPS data from a person’s phone without a search warrant. The court held that a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy is not violated when law enforcement officers request up to 6 hours of GPS data – and therefore law enforcement officers are not required to obtain a search warrant to request such information. However, if law enforcement officers wish to obtain more than 6 hours worth of GPS data, regardless of the amount of data that they later find relevant to the case, they are required to obtain a search warrant.

Supreme Court Ruling on Cell Phone Searches

In the summer of 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the ability of law enforcement officers to search a smartphone during a stop or incident to arrest. According to the Los Angeles Times, prior to the ruling, law enforcement officers had been entitled to conduct a search of someone who had been stopped or arrested, the idea being that officers were entitled to search someone for weapons to ensure their safety and the safety of others.

With the increasing use of smartphones, however, officers who found a smartphone during one of those searches would search the phones – accessing not just call logs, but photographs, text messages, e-mails, videos, facebook pages, and any other data. Last year, however, the court ruled that officers are no longer permitted to search smartphones without a search warrant, recognizing that cell phones are no longer just phones, but are computers on which our most personal data may be stored, and as such to search through the phone would violate the owner’s privacy.

While Massachusetts’ recent ruling places limits on law enforcement officers in Massachusetts, it has no practical implications or limitations on law enforcement officers in other jurisdictions. However, questions about cell phones and civil rights are increasingly ending up in front of courts, such as the Supreme Court, and courts are beginning to recognize the unique and changing place of cell phones in our lives and to limit the ways in which the state, and police officers, can access our phones and the data they hold.

If you or your loved one has questions about your rights, contact the experienced Florida lawyers at The Baez Law Firm for a consultation today.

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