Police respond to cellphone ruling

Published 10:32 pm Thursday, June 26, 2014

Suffolk’s police chief says his department will alter practices to comply with Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling that police must obtain warrants for most cellphone searches.

Before the court’s unanimous decision, Suffolk police were not obtaining warrants for cellphone searches, according to Thomas Bennett.

“We were looking at information on people’s phones that we arrested, for example,” Bennett said.

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“Since the Supreme Court has spoken, we are going to follow those guidelines and either gain consent to look at people’s information on their phone, or obtain a search warrant before we obtain any of the information.

“We will be following the letter of the law — plain and simple.”

The court’s decision has been widely hailed as one that moves protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by government, enshrined in the Fourth Amendment, into the 21st century.

Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Phil Ferguson said the first step his office would take after the ruling will be to read the court judgment, rather than rely on media reports.

“We will be reviewing the case to find out exactly how it impacts us,” Ferguson said.

“At that point, we’ll move forward with working with the police department to make them aware of what the requirements are, and go from there.

“The big picture is if you are going to search a cellphone, generally speaking, you are going to need to have a search warrant. Whether or not there are collateral pieces of that, I have got to read the case,” he said.

Thursday’s ruling stems from two cases. One involved a man convicted of a shooting after police in California stopped him for a traffic violation and searched his cellphone after finding weapons in his car.

The second case involved a man arrested after police said they saw him take part in a drug deal and searched his phone after seeing that it received several text messages. Police learned where the suspect lived and searched the residence after obtaining a warrant, finding evidence that put him away for more than 20 years.

On one side, police agencies argued that searching a cellphone is the same as asking someone to turn out their pockets. The defendants argued that modern cellphones store increasingly large amounts of personal information.