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Police Don't Need Search Warrants to Read Texts, California Court Rules

warrants for text messagesThe Fourth Amendment requires all law-enforcement officials to obtain a search warrant before seizing a suspect's personal property. According to the California Supreme Court, though, the law doesn't apply to cell phones. In a 5-to-2 vote, the court ruled that police don't need a search warrant to search an arrested individual's cell phone -- because cell phones, in essence, are like clothing.

The court arrived at the decision after hearing a case involving a man named Gregory Diaz. Diaz had been arrested and convicted on drug charges, after Ventura County police set him up in a sting operation. When they arrested him, police confiscated Diaz's six ecstasy tablets, as well as his cell phone. Later, a detective browsed through his text messages, and discovered that the man had intended to sell the drugs. Diaz admitted to participating in the deal, but appealed the use of his text messages as evidence, on the grounds that the detective didn't have a search warrant.

Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Ming Chin argued that, because cell phones can be considered a part of a suspect's clothing, police have every right to confiscate them within the first 90 minutes following the arrest. Chin's stance was founded upon previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings, which allow warrantless searches of any personal property that's "immediately associated" with a suspect (e.g., clothing or cigarette packages).

Justice Kathryn Werdegar, however, claimed that a person's cell phone still falls outside of these court-established boundaries. Writing in dissent, Werdegar argued that searching a suspect's mobile phone constitutes "highly intrusive" behavior, and called for a reevaluation of current rulings, in light of newer technology. Chin countered by arguing that any such reevaluation "must be undertaken by the high court itself."

We certainly understand Chin's rationale for the decision, but Werdegar's argument is a salient one. A cell phone, after all, is not just another piece of clothing. With one phone, an investigator can have instant access to a person's entire life -- including not only his text messages and phone records, but, in some cases, his e-mails, photos or videos. That's a lot of information for an investigator to seize without legal justification, regardless of the circumstances governing an arrest.

Perhaps more important, though, is the dangerous legal precedent that California's ruling could set. In the coming years, mobile technology will only expand further, and encompass even more aspects of our personal lives. And, if police retain the right to read our text messages at will, there's no telling where their reach could end.

Tags: california, CaliforniaSupremeCourt, cellphones, constitution, court, FourthAmendment, judges, law, police, politics, ruling, texting, TextMessaging, top

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