Montana Supreme Court Affirms Montanans’ Right to Cell Phone Privacy

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
September 27, 2022 8:15 pm

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HELENA, Mont. — In a huge win for privacy rights, the Montana Supreme Court has ruled that courts must interpret state and federal privacy protections to limit the disclosure of vast amounts of digital data contained on electronic devices.

In State of Montana v. Mefford, defendant Bradley Mefford agreed that his parole officer could read a Facebook Messenger thread on his phone in order to confirm his explanation for a purported curfew violation. But the parole officer did not return the phone after reading the relevant messages. Instead, he searched Mefford’s digital photographs. That search turned up unlawful contraband, and Mefford was eventually charged with possession of that contraband. The court held that the officer’s search could not exceed the scope of Mefford’s consent and suppressed the evidence.

The court analogized the search of a cell phone to the search of physical spaces such as a home or office: “It was no more reasonable for [the parole officer] to believe that he had permission to search Mefford’s photos to corroborate [his explanation of the curfew violation] than it would have been for him to search through a photo album in Mefford’s bedroom or a rolodex on Mefford’s office desk for information… Each of those searches similarly would not have been permitted by Mefford’s consent.”

“Today, the Montana Supreme Court made clear that we have a fundamental right to cell phone privacy,” said Alex Rate, legal director at ACLU of Montana. “And we’re heartened to see the Court agree that police should not be able to leverage someone’s consent to search specific information on their cell phone for a limited purpose into a search of anything or everything on the device for any purpose at all.”

The ACLU of Montana and the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Montana Supreme Court arguing that courts must interpret state and federal Constitutions to protect against police indiscriminately rummaging through the private and sensitive information we keep on our electronic devices.

“We live in a reality in which each of us carries our entire life in the palm of our hand,” said Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel with ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “This decision is an important step towards ensuring that there are real constitutional limits on searches of our digital information.”

The court specifically credited the arguments presented by the ACLU of Montana and the ACLU: “As Amici highlight, ‘[a] smartphone is a palm-sized portal into an individual’s personal life,’ which may contain up to ‘250,000 personal photos’ and information about a person’s ‘health and activity, dating, video streaming, mobile shopping, banking, and password storage.’”

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