Supreme Court limits cellphone searches: What it means for you

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Update 4:35 p.m. How the Supreme Court's decision changes things in Southern California

Have police in Southern California been searching cellphones without search warrants?

Yes. And that will stop, at least in Los Angeles: LAPD Chief Charlie Beck is expected to issue an order Wednesday instructing officers to immediately stop searching cellphones, LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said.

Until the Supreme Court issued its decision on Wednesday, the L.A. Police Department did search the cellphones of arrestees without a warrant, Smith confirmed.

"Now, we'll do what the courts say, as we always do, and we'll abide by their recommendations, and we'll just have to obtain search warrants from this point forward," L.A. Police Department Lt. Andy Neiman told KNX, according to City News Service.

Smith could not say how often officers searched cellphones, but said the practice was not uncommon, particularly in cases where searching a cellphone might produce important evidence or lead to other suspects.

“Officers might go through a cellphone to find accomplices” in a burglary or gang case, Smith said.  

On the other hand, officers typically would not look at your cellphone if you were arrested for a DUI, he said.

Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt. Kent Wegener of the Major Crimes Bureau said the agency is "complying as directed in the ruling," City News Service reports. He said the department already had been obtaining such warrants "in the vast majority of cases."

"The ruling will likely affect patrol (units) more than our investigative units," Wegener said.

Now that the Supreme Court has issued its ruling barring warrantless searches of cellphones, are police and prosecutors angry about the decision?

Smith said it could delay some investigations. But he acknowledged that “technology is advancing,” and that means new rules for police.

Other law enforcement officials expressed a degree of relief about the decision. “Prior to today's decision, there was a split of opinion regarding if police did or did not need a search warrant,” said Mark Zahner, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association. “The U.S. Supreme Court settled that issue today in their opinion, and now law enforcement has guidance and can proceed more confidently in this area.”

A spokesman for Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey declined to comment on the ruling.

So can police ever search your cellphone without a warrant?

Yes. If there is an emergency situation or what police often call “exigent circumstances” that require searching your cellphone to save somebody, officers can do so without a search warrant.

The LAPD's Cmdr. Smith likens the concept to kicking in a door if somebody is being held hostage. “We don’t need a search warrant for that,” he said.

What qualifies as an emergency situation?

“That is a huge question,” said Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson. “I think we will see that playing out in the courts in the years to come.”

Levenson said it will likely be permissible to search a phone without a warrant if there’s an “ongoing crime."

How hard is it to obtain a search warrant in Southern California?

In large counties like Los Angeles and Orange, the courts have judges on standby to consider requests for search warrants, Smith said. Officers often can obtain a warrant “within a few hours."

That may not be the case in smaller counties, where police might have to wait for regular court hours, he added.

—Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Previously: Police may not generally search the cellphones of people they arrest without first getting search warrants, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The court said cellphones are powerful devices unlike anything else police may find on someone they arrest. Because the phones contain so much information, police must get a warrant before looking through them, Chief Justice John Robert said.

The Supreme Court previously had ruled that police could empty a suspect's pockets and examine whatever they find to ensure officers' safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.

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The Obama administration and the state of California, defending the cellphone searches, said cellphones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find.

But the defendants in these cases, backed by civil libertarians, librarians and news media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, are increasingly powerful computers that can store troves of sensitive personal information.

In the cases decided Wednesday, one defendant carried a smartphone, while the other carried an older flip phone.

"Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life," Roberts said.

The court's answer to what police must do before searching phones is simple: "Get a warrant," he said.

— Associated Press

DOCUMENT: Read the Supreme Court opinion

This story has been updated.

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