In an effort to balance the privacy rights of individuals with the government’s interest in investigating cases, U.S. Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled Wednesday that officers must obtain a search warrant before examining cellphones.
Justices concluded that cellphones are different than other forms of personal property like wallets and purses because they can store massive amounts of personal information.
They said searching a cellphone without a warrant could violate a suspect’s privacy.
Until now, officers were able to examine a suspect upon arrest, search anything within reason on his person and preserve evidence for future use — both for the officer and suspect’s safety.
Capt. James Agee of the St. Albans Police Department, said he somewhat agrees with the ruling, and doesn’t think it will hurt his department’s operations.
“When the Supreme Court speaks unanimously, you need to listen because they very rarely agree. When it is unanimous it is clear-cut. I just don’t think it is going to be as big of a deal as people think it will be,” Agee said.
“This will change (things), but I just don’t think it will change significantly.”
He said officers obtain a search warrant for every crime scene.
Agee said if officers have probable cause for a warrant they would more than likely use the same information, if applicable, to request a warrant for a cellphone. He said it would just add an extra step to the process.
In October, St. Albans City Council approved funding for a device that can download and preserve the contents of a cellphone.
Agee said the department would continue to use the Cellebrite device to collect evidence.
John Sammons, a former Huntington police officer and instructor at Marshall University Forensic Science Center, said these devices are created specifically for preserving evidence on cellphones. He explained a forensic evidence technician would never want to examine an original piece of evidence for the fear of altering or losing information.
“The device is similar to the one you see at the AT&T store when they move contacts from your old phone to your new one,” he said.
“Cellebrites are actually made just for forensics — it is designed not to alter the evidence. They are very efficient in what they do to maintain the integrity of the evidence. They are a forensic tool with hardware and software designed with that in mind.”
Sammons said these devices provide a wealth of evidence and intelligence to officers, but at a price — they can run up to $10,000.
“A cellphone is more like a window to a person’s soul. You can find out more about a person by looking at their cellphone than talking to their friend,” Sammons said.
“There’s a lot of things happening behind the scenes of the phone that you don’t realize is happening, like a location of a picture taken is recorded in that image as well. Sometimes users try to hide or delete information on a computer and unknowing to them it can be hard to get rid of.”
Agee said they plan to use the device around the same amount of time as they did before the ruling.
For more information about the Marshall University Forensic Science Center, visit http://forensics.marshall.edu/default.html.
Contact writer Shawnee Moran at 304-348-4972 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shawneemoran22.