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When can police search your cellphone? Supreme Court weighs in

The United States Supreme Court issued an important decision recently concerning cellphone searches by police during an arrest. Because the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over the entire country, the decision will affect how these searches are conducted here in North Carolina.

Normally, during a lawful arrest, police have a fairly broad right to search the items carried by an arrested individual, such as a purse or backpack, which may contain weapons or evidence of a crime. This is known as a "search incident to arrest." When it comes to cellphones, however, the Court ruled that police are usually required to obtain a warrant before they may conduct a search of the phone's contents.

The Court's ruling treats cellphone searches in a manner similar to home searches, which are dictated by a different set of rules than searches incident to arrest. Although certain exceptions apply, police usually must obtain a warrant before they are permitted to search a person's home -- even if this is where an arrest takes place. This is because there is thought to be a very high expectation of privacy inside the home.

In its recent decision, the Supreme Court reasoned that people's cellphones often contain tremendous amounts of personal information, ranging "from the mundane to the intimate." Thus, the potential invasion of privacy resulting from a warrantless cellphone search could be very high.

To illustrate that point, the Court drew a comparison between searching a person's cellphone and ransacking his or her house from top to bottom. Either one, it concluded, is unacceptable without a warrant in most cases.

Source: New York Times, "Major Ruling Shields Privacy of Cellphones," Adam Liptak, June 25, 2014

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