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Florida top court rules warrantless cell phone searches unconstitutional

The Florida Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday that police need a warrant to search a defendant's cell phone at the time of arrest. The court ruled 5-2 that officers were permitted to confiscate the defendant's cell phone, but that they should have obtained a warrant before looking at pictures on the phone. Justice Lewis wrote for the majority, "[w]e refuse to authorize government intrusion into the most private and personal details of an arrestee’s life without a search warrant simply because the cellular phone device which stores that information is small enough to be carried on one’s person." The ruling overturns the decision of the 1st District Court of Appeal, which found the search of the phone to be legal.

Courts have been split on this issue. In December Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court [official website] ruled that police do not need a warrant [JURIST report] to search a suspect's cell phone once the suspect been lawfully arrested. In March of last year the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit [official website] ruled that a warrantless search of a suspect's cell phone to collect its phone number does not constitute a violation [JURIST report] of Fourth Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] protections against unreasonable search and seizure. In 2011 the Supreme Court of California [official website] ruled that law enforcement officers can legally search [JURIST report] text messages on a suspect's cell phone without a warrant incident to a lawful custodial arrest.

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