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Right to Privacy Gets a Little Weaker

A ruling came down from the Federal Appeals Court for the 7th Circuit Wednesday, February 29, 2012, creating a new law that police can now search your cell phone for phone numbers without a warrant. The courts' reasoning heavily relied upon the premise that the invasion of privacy in most cases will be very slight compared to the risk of law enforcement potentially losing access to this information. In his opinion, Judge Posner compared a cell phone to a diary, saying "Just as police are entitled to open a pocket diary to copy an owner's address, they should be able to turn on a cell phone to learn its number, he wrote. But just as they're forbidden from examining love letters tucked between the pages of an address book, so are they forbidden from exploring letters in the files of a phone."

The prosecution pushed for the ability to search all cell phone information and argued that in this digital age, there is a high risk that suspects could erase their cell phone information remotely. The court rejected that argument in the case but still ended up leaning in that direction. The court limited the warrantless search capability to phone numbers only. "Lurking behind this issue is the question whether and when a laptop or desktop computer, tablet, or other type of computer (whether called a 'computer' or not) can be searched without a warrant," Judge Richard Posner wrote for the three-judge panel. In raising this limitation, he gave the example of the iCam, which is a device that allows a person to wirelessly connect a phone to a computer and utilize the webcam. An iCam, or similar device, would allow a cell phone user to instantanesouly view the interior of a home. "At the touch of a button, a cell phone search becomes a house search," the judge wrote.

These are the 2 main things you need to know about this new law: First, even though police officers may not need a warrant to execute a search for numbers in your cell phone, this act still constitutes a "search" under the Constitution. Therefore, according to the 4th Amendment and subsequent cases, probable cause is still required for the search to be legal. Second, as was stated earlier, this search is extremely limited. A smart phone can contain e-mails, pictures and all kinds of personal information. Under the new ruling, the warrantless search must be limited to phone numbers only. While it may be practically impossible for a searching officer to only see the numbers, the search must be reasonably tailored to achieve for this purpose.

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