US Supreme Court rules on cellphone searches

A U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday that police need a warrant to search cellphones in most cases will have little effect on the way local police go about their job, authorities said.

But area defense attorneys hailed the decision as an important step in protecting people’s privacy.

“It’s a nonissue for us,” said Altoona Police Detective Sgt. Benjamin Jones, who heads up the department’s narcotics unit. “We never search phones without a search warrant.”

Jones said he wasn’t surprised by the unanimous decision Wednesday by the Supreme Court that, barring a reasonable fear for their safety, officers must first get a search warrant before accessing the cellphones of people they arrest.

Blair County Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks said under state law police in Pennsylvania, police already have to get a search warrant, unless there is something visibly displayed on the screen of the phone that is in plain sight. Weeks said that

doesn’t come up often, but there has been a case in Blair County Court where a police officer could see an incriminating text message about drugs to an accomplice from a suspect being questioned at the Altoona Police Department.

In that case, the message was visible to anyone, so police didn’t need a search warrant, Weeks said.

In all other cases, police in Blair County have always sought search warrants before looking at the contents of cellphones, he added.

By ruling as it did, the court chose not to extend earlier decisions from the 1970s – when cellphone technology was not yet available – that allow police to empty a suspect’s pockets and examine whatever they find to ensure officers’ safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.

The Obama administration and the state of California, defending cellphone searches, said the phones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find. But the defendants in the current cases, backed by civil libertarians, librarians and news media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, can store troves of sensitive personal information.

Chief Justice John Roberts said there’s no comparison between cellphones and packages of cigarettes and other items that were at issue in the earlier cases.

Area defense attorneys agree with the ruling and said it comes down to privacy.

“People live on the their phones nowadays,” said defense attorney Steven Passarello, who said “it’s about time” the court clarified what has become an issue throughout the country.

Passarello said the opinion of the court gives the cellphone the same protection as one’s home and said with the amount of data accessible through smartphones, it’s an important protection of privacy. Passarello also noted that the courts have been a little behind the times when it comes to addressing issues dealing with technology.

“People have an expectation of privacy,” attorney Mark Zearfaus said of the decision, pointing out that a cellphone can reveal a lot about a person – from his or her bank account information to what kind of books he or she reads.

Attorney Theodore Krol pointed out that while social media sites such as Facebook carry no expectation of privacy, a cellphone is completely different.

“Clearly, it’s about expectation of privacy,” Krol said.

With phones equipped with password protection and the vast amount of information they can contain, it’s clear people expect that information to be private, Krol said.

Attorney John Siford agreed and said the issue really hasn’t come up in cases he’s defended.

Many cases where police want information on a phone related to drug activity, such as contact information and call and text history, Siford said.

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458. The Associated Press contributed to this story.