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Court Rules Warrantless Cellphone Searches OK...But How Far Can You Go?

Court Rules Warrantless Cellphone Searches OK...But How Far Can You Go?

"At the touch of a button, a cell phone search becomes a house search."

The U.S. Court of Appeal for the 7th Circuit has ruled that some warrantless searches of cellphones, for example to obtain phone numbers, is allowable and does not violate a person's Fourth Amendment rights.

Reuters reports that Abel Flores-Lopez was given 10 years in prison for involvement in a drug case after police identified him from a cellphone they found on the scene of a drug bust. They had to enter the cellphone to obtain the number. Flores-Lopez argued the police did not have the right to search the contents of the phone without a warrant.

(Related: Texas city to buy $180K cellphone tracker to help 'combat criminal activity')

He appealed his sentencing but it was rejected by the court. Reuters reports that the court said the invasion of privacy was "so slight" that it was not considered an unreasonable search.

Issues with search warrants and electronic devices have been growing as the technology becomes increasingly attractive to authorities. Earlier this year, it went as high as the Supreme Court to decide that GPS tracking of a vehicle does in fact require a warrant. This is also not the first case regarding cellphones. We reported last year how Michigan State Police could download your cellphone's information while at a traffic stop. Right now, laws differ by state. We reported that in California, for example cellphone searches without a warrant are allowed, and in Florida cellphones are considered "containers" and are therefore not subject to needing a warrant. Ohio, on the other hand, has banned warrantless cellphone searches.

But, the ruling gave some judges the opportunity to discuss the doors that could be opened with this ruling regarding searches of cellphones. Reuters has more:

"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.

He raised the example of the iCam, which allows someone to use a phone to connect to a home-computer web camera, enabling someone to search a house interior remotely.

"At the touch of a button, a cell phone search becomes a house search," he wrote.

Posner compared the cell phone to a diary. 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.

Reuters reports that while the judges have not made a ruling on just how deep searches on cellphones can go, at least for now finding numbers seems to be non-intrusive enough to bypass a warrant.

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