Cell phones, search warrants, and the Fourth Amendment

On April 3, 1973, inventor Martin Cooper introduced the first cell phone, “The Motorola DynaTAC,” at a news conference in New York City.

The phone was 9 inches tall, weighed 2.5 pounds, had a battery charge of 20 minutes, and was nicknamed “The Brick.”

 To say the least cell phones have come a long way since then.

Today 96 percent of American adults own cell phones of one kind or another.

Among the owners are people who are involved in criminal activities. When they are caught, the police sometimes find it is important to download the digital data from their phones for evidence of crimes.

 However, under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, and free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Since a cell phone’s contents are considered a type of “papers” or “effects,” a search warrant must first be obtained before any search or download.

The Fourth Amendment also provides that there be particularity as to the place to be searched, what is to be seized, and the alleged criminal activity justifying the warrant.

This ensures that “general” searches aren’t allowed, which the Constitution’s Framers intended to prohibit.

Requiring cell phone search warrants has been the law since 2014 when the United States Supreme Court held in Riley v California that it was constitutionally mandated.

After Riley, the question of the allowed extent of a cell phone search was raised in situations where a warrant has been issued for one crime and officers then search for evidence of a second crime.

In Michigan, this fact situation was recently addressed in the Dec. 28, 2020 case of People v Hughes when a warrant to search for drug crime evidence was issued and a search for evidence of an armed robbery was subsequently conducted.

The Hughes Court unanimously held that for the evidence of the armed robbery to be admissible, a second warrant must first be obtained.

To underscore the importance of search warrants, on Nov. 3, 2020 Michigan’s voters overwhelmingly approved Proposal 2 amending Michigan’s Constitution to require warrants to access electronic data or electronic communications.

The Fourth Amendment and search warrants protect us all.

I am confident this will never change.

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