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California high court rules no warrant needed to search cell phone text messages

The Supreme Court of California [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Monday that law enforcement officers can legally search text messages on a suspect's cell phone without a warrant incident to a lawful custodial arrest. The court held 5-2 that a search of the defendant's cell phone text messages in the police station 90 minutes after the arrest did not violate the Fourth Amendment [text] prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure without exigent circumstances. The majority based its decision on the 1970s Supreme Court cases United States v. Edwards and United States v. Robinson [opinions], which held, respectively, that warrantless searches incident to arrest were valid of a suspect's clothes for paint chips and a cigarette packet taken from the suspect's person. The court distinguished the case from from United States v. Chadwick [opinion text], which held that luggage could not be searched incident to arrest without exigent circumstances. The court held that a cell phone is more similar to the cigarette packet obtained from the suspect in Robinson or clothes searched in Edwards than the luggage in Chadwick because a cell phone is "immediately associated with [the defendant's] person." The defendant had argued that cell phones are not like the cigarette pack in Edwards because they are often not carried directly on the person but in a bag or within the person's reach and that cell phones are unlike any other personal item because they store such a wealth of personal information and data. The dissent, written by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, argued that modern cell phones are unprecedented information storage devices requiring that the balance between privacy interests and public safety interests "must be newly evaluated."

The California decision represents a split from a 2009 decision [JURST report] by the Ohio Supreme Court [official website] holding that police must obtain a warrant before searching data stored on a cell phone. The US Supreme Court [official website] denied certiorari on that case but the split may force it to rule on the issue [San Francisco Chronicle report]. In June, the US Supreme Court ruled [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] unanimously in City of Ontario v. Quon [Cornell LII backgrounder] that an employer's search of private text messages on a work-issued device does not violate the Fourth Amendment if the search is motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose and is not excessive in scope.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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