When law enforcement arrests someone they are allowed under the “probable cause” law to conduct warrant-less searches of the person being arrested as well as their car to look for weapons, contraband or anything else that might pose a threat to the arresting officer or to preserve and protect evidence from destruction.
In a unanimous decision that is likely to have far-reaching impact, the United States Supreme Court ruled law enforcement will now be required to obtain a search warrant before they can access the cell phone of any individual they arrest.
The High Court ruled there are exceptions for extreme circumstances involving law enforcement such as child abduction or a bomb threat.
“The one thing we always try to work with is consent and working with the parties to gain their cooperation and trust to work with us”, says Santa Maria Police Officer Shawn Fuggs who Central Coast News joined in a routine patrol Wednesday morning, “in the event that we don't have that we do have authority to search under circumstances to help search for weapons and collect and recover property.”
Enforcing traffic safety laws, responding to calls for police service are all part of the job for Officer Fuggs.
But then there's the traffic stop that leads to an arrest for an outstanding warrant or some other illegal activity that may involved illegal drugs, weapons etc., and the suspect in question is carrying a cell phone or smart phone.
“Its a walking computer, it basically has everyone's life right there at their hand”, Officer Fuggs tells Central Coast News about cell phones, “its a very useful tool for the owner, and at the same token it has high evidenciary value for law enforcement when we find those crimes where those types of communications are used.”
“A lot of crimes are related through communication because you have multiple conspirators that are involved”, Officer Fuggs says, “a lot of times you can create timelines from communication involving other conspirators through cell phone connections.”
Officer Fuggs says cell phones can be critical evidence in cases involved illegal drug sales and distribution as well as illegal gang activity.
“That's a perfect example of how a cell phone will connect co-conspirators and others involved in crimes”, Officer Fuggs says, “during the incident of arrest we have the authority to view that cell phone, that being their property, to confirm any evidence related to our current investigation. Outside of the arrest, if that phone is not touched, we'll obviously need a search warrant to look further into those cell phones to obtain any other information that we might find pertinent to our case.”
The Supreme Court ruling closes what some argued was a massive loophole in Fourth Amendment protection under the Constitution against unreasonable search and seizure.
“I know it's a battle being fought in the courts", Officer Fuggs says, "but we see it (cell phone evidence) on a daily basis when we have cases here in the Superior Court”, Officer Fuggs says.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found 90 percent of Americans now have or use cell phones and 60 percent now use smartphones.