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Note to Police: Cell Phones Really Are Hands-Free

Mike Brickner,
ACLU of Ohio
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December 15, 2009

Today, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a groundbreaking decision in the case State of Ohio v. Antwuan Smith (PDF) requiring law enforcement have a warrant in order to search the contents of someone’s cell phone. This marks the first time a state supreme court has ruled on this issue.

Perhaps what is most encouraging about the ruling is the Ohio Supreme Court’s recognition that cell phones are much different than previous items that courts have allowed law enforcement to search without a warrant. Indeed, today’s modern cell phone is not simply used to make and receive phone calls. For many of us, it may be where we access the internet, manage our finances, maintain personal contact information, or where we store private photos. As a result, people have a much higher expectation that this information will remain private. If police were able to have unfettered access to cell phones without a search warrant, unimaginable amounts of personal data would be subject to government scrutiny.

The Court did outline two narrow exceptions where police could conduct warrantless searches: if it was necessary to protect the safety of officers, and if they believed the individual may delete evidence. However, in the second circumstance, the Court said the officers may only seize a cell phone to prevent the destruction of evidence. They did not give officers permission to search the phone prior to receiving a search warrant.

Oftentimes, the law struggles to keep up with the breakneck pace of technology. It is doubtful that the framers of our Constitution anticipated the advent of computers or the internet, but that should not mean the basic principles our nation were founded on apply any less.

While this ruling is significant today, it will also have an important impact in the future. It is only a question of when — not if — there will be new technology and questions arise over whether the government may access personal information. This decision has reinforced that while technology may change rapidly, our core civil liberties do not.

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