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Cell phone search needs no warrant, say Cal Supremes

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California's high court said police don't need a warrant to read text messages stored on the cell phones of people taken into custody.

Monday's 5-2 decision (PDF) relied on separate decisions from the 1970s by the US Supreme Court that upheld warrantless searches of cigarette packs and clothing taken from suspects after they were arrested.

Cell phones are no different, California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin wrote for the majority in Monday's decision. They went on to uphold an appeals court decision that the retrieval of an incriminating text message from a drug suspect's handset didn't violate the US Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The ruling came in the case of Gregory Diaz, who was arrested in 2007 for conspiracy to sell Ecstasy. Officers who confiscated his phone found a message that read “6 4 $80,” which was interpreted to mean the defendant would sell six pills for $80.

In a dissenting opinion, two associate justices said cell phones should be treated differently than other personal effects confiscated from a suspect because they're capable of storing so much more information.

“A contemporary smartphone can hold hundreds or thousands of messages, photographs, videos, maps, contacts, financial records, memoranda and other documents, as well as records of the user‟s telephone calls and Web browsing,” Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote in the dissent. “Never before has it been possible to carry so much personal or business information in one's pocket or purse. The potential impairment to privacy if arrestees' mobile phones and handheld computers are treated like clothing or cigarette packages, fully searchable without probable cause or a warrant, is correspondingly great.”

The warrantless seizure of cell phones has already been heard by other courts with varying outcomes, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. The split may prompt the US Supreme Court to take up the issue. ®

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