Ohio Supreme Court Decision on Cell Phone Searches Protects Privacy and Due Process

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
December 15, 2009 2:49 pm

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Rules Police Must Have Warrant to Search Cell Phones

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COLUMBUS – The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio says the ruling issued today by the Ohio Supreme Court in the case of State v. Smith has enhanced the privacy rights of Ohioans. In a first of its kind ruling, the Court said that law enforcement officials must have a warrant in order to search the contents of someone’s cell phone when seized during arrest. In addition, the Court recognized that modern cell phones contain a great deal of personal information and users have a high expectation of privacy.

ACLU of Ohio Staff Counsel Carrie Davis said, “Today’s decision by the Ohio Supreme Court has affirmed that even with changes in technology, we do not sacrifice our core civil liberties. Oftentimes, the law fails to keep up with the fast pace of technology, but this decision lays the groundwork for greater privacy protections as the digital age advances.”

“The modern cell phone is often not used simply to make and receive calls — many people use them to access the internet, manage finances, house personal photos, catalogue personal contact information and a host of other functions. The Court clearly holds that law enforcement cannot go on “fishing expeditions” and search this information without a warrant,” added Davis.

The Court affirmed that police may conduct warrantless searches upon arrest in two narrow exceptions: if the search was necessary to protect the immediate safety of officers or others, 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.

Today’s decision by the Ohio Supreme Court marks the first time a state supreme court has ruled on whether a warrant is required to search a cell phone. Previously, there were only a few scattered rulings in federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue. The ACLU of Ohio filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Mr. Smith.

“As technology continues to advance, we must ensure that our laws protect the rights on which our country was founded. Today, the Ohio Supreme Court took a step in the right direction toward protecting our privacy today, and in the future,” Davis concluded.

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