California Supreme Court Allows Warrantless Cellphone Searches

By Minara El-Rahman on January 05, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The California Supreme Court has ruled that police can conduct a cell phone search on a suspect's cellphone without a warrant. The Court held that police in the Golden State have the authority to look at text messages on a cell phone that is found on the person of a criminal suspect.

The case dealt with whether police needed a warrant to conduct a cell phone search of suspect Gregory Diaz. Diaz was arrested in 2007 on suspicion of selling the drug Ecstasy to an informant in the backseat of his car. When police conducted a search on his cell phone, one of the texts that police found read: "6 4 80." The text possibly refers to a sale price of $80 for 6 pills.

The ruling found that defendants lost their cell phone privacy rights or any privacy rights for any items that they are carrying on their person when they are taken into police custody. The majority referenced the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings in the 1970s in their decision: "this loss of privacy allows police not only to seize anything of importance they find on the arrestee's body ... but also to open and examine what they find."

The California Supreme Court ruled that the loss of personal cell phone privacy will prevent a loss of possible evidence.

The dissenters argued that the majority opinion would allow police access to more information than the Supreme Court rulings from the 1970s could have anticipated. They wrote that the ruling would give the police "carte blanche, with no showing of exigency, to rummage at leisure through the wealth of personal and business information that can be carried on a mobile phone or handheld computer merely because the device was taken from an arrestee's person."

It is also important to note that the Ohio Supreme Court reached the opposite conclusion in their decision in a December 2009 ruling with regards to cell phone privacy during an arrest.

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