On June 25, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Riley v. California, ruling that police officers must first obtain a warrant before searching arrestees’ cell phones for potential evidence. No. 13-132, slip op. at 28. (June 25, 2014). The Court opined that in the case of searching an individual’s cell phone, a citizen’s right to privacy outweighs the governmental interest in obtaining the potential evidence.  In this era where smart phones can hold years of data, including phone call logs, location tracking, personal photos and videos, and even bank statements, a search of cell phones has the potential to bring in greater privacy interests than a physical search of one’s person. pgs. 8-22.  Before cell phones were commonplace, a search of a person was limited to the items he was carrying at the time of the search, and generally considered to be “a narrow intrusion on privacy.” pg. 17.  But there are no limits when cell phones are involved.  “[M]ore than 90% of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives – from the mundane to the intimate.” pg. 19.  In fact, cell phones are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” pg. 9.

The Court was not persuaded by California’s argument that exception to the search warrant requirement should apply because of officer safety and evidence destruction.  Data found in an arrestee’s cell phone does not pose a threat to officer safety.  pg. 10. Officers can examine the physical phone to make sure it cannot be used as a weapon, but digital information alone does not present any immediate dangers to the arresting officers.  pgs. 10-11. Additionally, once the phone is secured in police custody, the threat of the arrestee destroying the digital information is slim, and law enforcement can easily address concerns of remote wiping by placing phones in Faraday bags to isolate phones from radio waves. pgs. 12-14.

The opinion concludes with a reminder “that the warrant requirement is an important working part of our machinery of government.” pg. 26. (internal quotations and citations omitted) and reinforces the idea that advancements in technology do not diminished our fundamental right to privacy.  Unfortunately, many law enforcement agencies think otherwise.  USA Today recently reported that FBI and other law enforcement agencies throughout the country are using IMSI or “stingray” catchers for in-depth surveillance.  These machines, disguised as cell phone towers, have the ability to track individuals with cell phones, and can gather data about the phone, such as identification numbers and the device’s location, as well as data stored, like dialed numbers.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls the devices, “the biggest technological threat to cell phone privacy you don’t know about”; the American Civil Liberties Union raised similar concerns about the equipment as well.

Is the Chicago Police one of the agencies using these IMSI catchers in secret?  Do you have information about the IMSI catchers you would like to share?  Or tell us what you think of the Court’s decision in Riley v. California.

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