The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects Americans from unlawful, or warrantless, searches and seizures. This means that law enforcement officials first need to have judges approve police reasons for prying into and searching the private effects and lives of citizens. But there are times when law enforcement is granted exceptions to this warrant requirement, including checking a cellphone for its number.
While being arrested at a methamphetamine bust, an Indiana man was found in possession of three cellphones; and without first obtaining a search warrant, police officials turned on and searched the cellphones to retrieve their phone numbers. Those numbers were then used to obtain search warrants for the phones’ call histories — information that led to a drug-charges conviction and a 10-year prison sentence.
The man appealed his conviction, arguing that conducting warrantless searches of the cellphones for their phone numbers was a violation of his Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure. Therefore, any evidence obtained from the phone numbers such as the call histories was inadmissible and could not be used against him. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously disagreed with this argument.
Comparing a cellphone to a diary, the court stated in the opinion, “It’s not even clear that we need a rule of law specific to cellphones or other computers. If police are entitled to open a pocket diary to copy the owner’s address, they should be entitled to turn on a cellphone to learn its number.”
Further, the court described the invasion of obtaining a cellphone’s number as a “modest cost” in privacy. The court did note that any search of a cellphone beyond retrieving its number may be considered intrusive, meaning a warrant would be required.
If you feel law enforcement officials are using evidence gained from an unlawful warrantless search against you, speak with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.