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Cellphone search rulings account for technology

— The Knoxville News-Sentinel • Jul 4, 2014 at 7:00 PM

In a unanimous decision issued last week, the U.S. Supreme Court strengthened privacy rights by ruling that police in most cases must obtain a search warrant before reviewing the data stored in cellphones.

The Tennessee Legislature, though, was a step ahead of the justices. A state law that took affect Tuesday makes the same demand of Tennessee law enforcement agencies. Another law also requires a search warrant to obtain a cellphone’s location information from telecommunications companies.

The state law and the Supreme Court decision that gives it additional heft provide important protections for anyone detained by police. The law should not place an extraordinary burden on law enforcement agencies because obtaining search warrants is as routine for them as reading Miranda rights to a suspect under arrest.

The Supreme Court has long held that police officers can remove items from a suspect’s pockets without running afoul of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. Typically, police must obtain a warrant, based on probable cause that the person has committed a crime, before they can legally conduct a search.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, said cellphones are different from items such as car keys, wallets, cigarettes or other items, including drugs, that police typically find when searching detainees. He acknowledged that cellphones have evolved into powerful computers that store huge amounts of personal data. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” Roberts wrote.

While asserting that the ruling would affect law enforcement agencies, Roberts wrote, “Privacy comes at a cost.”

Local law enforcement officials, however, said in the wake of the ruling that the cost would not be too dear. In fact, they have been planning to abide by Tennessee’s new restriction since the law was passed in this year’s legislative session.

“Does it make anything easier? No, it doesn’t, but we were getting ready for that anyway,” Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones told the News Sentinel.

Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols said the new law and the Supreme Court ruling would not dramatically change the way police and prosecutors go about their business because they seek and receive warrants daily.

Nichols also said the ruling was neither unreasonable nor unanticipated. “In our experience,” he said, “the cellphones have become more and more a piece of evidence for us. But in most cases I don’t see how this will cause us to lose a lot of evidence.”

Indeed, Roberts noted that authorities can take steps to keep data from being erased remotely while waiting for a warrant. And the opinion contains an exception when police have a reasonable fear for their safety or the safety of the public.

Taken together, Tennessee’s new statute and the Supreme Court decision ensure that privacy protections can keep up with technological innovations during the digital revolution.

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