Local cops get warrants before searching cellphones

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Andrea Anderson and Frank Schultz
Tuesday, April 29, 2014

“What if they look through the phone?”

That is a phone conversation between two drug-case suspects quoted in a recent Rock County criminal complaint.

The same phone yielded text messages detailing deals for Vicodin and marijuana.

Police and drug dealers alike know cellphones can hold incriminating information. But local police officials contacted by The Gazette said they don’t examine a cellphone’s contents without first getting a search warrant.

That’s different from the practices in some other states, as evidenced by arguments before the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The Supreme Court seemed wary of allowing police unbridled freedom to search through cellphones of people they arrest, taking on a new issue of privacy in the face of rapidly changing technology.

The justices appeared ready to reject the Obama administration’s argument that police should be able to make such searches without first getting warrants.

A key question in two cases argued Tuesday is whether Americans’ cellphones, with vast quantities of sensitive records, photographs and communications, are a private realm much like their homes.

Police departments in Janesville and Elkhorn and the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office all get warrants before going through the contents of suspects’ cellphones, officials said.

The only exception is in life-threatening situations, Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore said.

Moore said he can’t recall a time when getting a warrant to search a cellphone hasn’t been standard procedure.

Moore said police get cellphone warrants only in cases in which the phone is relevant.

“In drug cases, obviously, we know through past experience that people who use or sell drugs use their phone as a line of communication. That’s an easy search warrant,” said Capt. Dana Nigbor of the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office.

“We search phones a lot here down in the bureau for sexual assault cases, child enticement cases, child pornography cases because the phone holds all of that information,” Nigbor said.

Nigbor said cellphones can contain the person’s address book, calendar, photos, even important papers.

“I don’t think we’re getting any more information off of a phone than we would get from a search of your house, if we were comparing apples to apples,” Nigbor said.

“Generally, any search without a warrant is inadmissible (as evidence), unless you add an exception to the warrant requirement, so we always try to err on the side of caution and utilize a search warrant,” Elkhorn Police Chief Joel Christensen said.

The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in cases involving a drug dealer and a gang member whose convictions turned in part on evidence found on their cellphones.

The justices suggested they might favor limiting warrantless cellphone searches to looking for evidence of the crime on which an arrest is based. Both defendants could lose in such an outcome.

More broadly, however, a decision imposing restrictions on the searches could avoid subjecting people arrested for minor crimes to having all the contents of their cellphones open to police inspection. And it might also prevent the police from using the phones to connect to the Internet and any information stored online.

If police were to arrest someone for driving without a seat belt, Justice Antonin Scalia said, “it seems absurd that they should be able to search that person’s iPhone.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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