A recent unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling significantly powers down the ability for law enforcers to search cellphones and smartphones.
And local law enforcers seem OK with the decision, aimed at keeping personal information on mobile devices private.
The Register posed four questions about the ruling to various sheriffs and police chiefs located within Erie, Huron, Ottawa and Sandusky counties.
Among the local law enforcers responding to the questions:
• Vermilion police Chief Chris Hartung.
• Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Levorchick.
• Norwalk police Chief Dave Light.
• Huron police Chief Robert Lippert.
• Perkins police Chief Ken Klamar.
• Milan police Chief Bob Meister.
• Sandusky police Chief John Orzech.
• Erie County Sheriff Paul Sigsworth.
Among the local law enforcers and agencies neglecting to answer the questions:
• Bellevue police.
• Fremont police Chief Tim Wiersma.
• Huron County Sheriff Dane Howard.
• Port Clinton police Chief Robert Hickman.
• Danbury police Chief Michael Meisler.
• Sandusky County Sheriff Kyle Overmyer.
Q: Do you agree with this ruling? Why or why not?
Hartung: I agree with the ruling. With the advances in phone technology over the years, it was common sense that you would need a warrant to search one.
Levorchick: I do agree with the ruling, due to the fact that cellphones today hold much more information and electronic data than just telephones. There are private photos, personal information and even banking information on telephones that should not be open to just anyone looking through them without probable cause for such search.
Light: Yes. It is consistent with the Fourth Amendment. It still allows for exceptions for exigent circumstances.
Lippert: Agree or disagree matters little since it was a decision of the Supreme Court of the U.S. Officers of the Huron Police Department will abide by the rules that the high court has set forth.
Klamar: I agree with this ruling because, as you know, cellphones of today are essentially computers that can make phone calls. They often contain personal information, such as passwords, pictures, videos, credit card and other sensitive information that should be protected from a warrantless search.
Meister: I agree with the ruling. Law enforcement can still seize these devices as long as the officer can document reasonable, articulable suspicion. I see nothing wrong with securing a warrant. What becomes problematic is the long turnaround time to have the devices analyzed once the warrant is secured.
Orzech: I agree with this ruling. The ruling stands behind the principles of the U.S. Constitution, which we are sworn to uphold. The ruling was unanimous, therefore, I don’t see any gray area. It’s pretty crystal clear by the ruling of the Supreme Court justices that a warrant is necessary to search cellphones or smartphones. With that being said, this has already been our standing practice for many years.
Sigsworth: I do agree with the unanimous Supreme Court ruling. Cellphones can contain a large amount of intimate, personal information that should be protected from unreasonable searches. In the course of most investigations involving the use of cellphone evidence, a warrantless search is not necessary or appropriate, and there is no need to forego the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.
Q: How, if at all, will this ruling change or impact your operation?
Hartung: It doesn’t change our operations because we’ve always obtained a warrant if we needed to search a phone.
Levorchick: This will not impact our operations at all. We did not commonly go through phones prior to this ruling and will obtain a search warrant if needed and if appropriate.
Light: Not at all. We have always either asked for consent or applied for search warrants. We tend to take the attitude "better safe than sorry" when it comes to search warrants, consent forms, etc. Why risk losing important evidence at a later suppression hearing if you could have gotten a search warrant to begin with.
Lippert: It should have little impact on our operation nor should the decision create a major change in operations, especially since there are exceptions to the rule, which allow officers, in certain circumstances, to search a cellphone without a warrant.
Klamar: This should not change or impact our operations much other than the time it would take to type a search warrant and have it approved. This would not change incidents where the owner of a phone gave an officer consent to search the phone. We have the equipment in house to download information from cell devices. Obtaining a search warrant would only add an additional step.
Meister: This will not impact our operation.
Orzech: The practice to obtain search warrants for cellphones has already been in place for many years at our agency. As cellphones emerged, with all of the technology that they could create and store, our Erie County prosecutors have been well ahead of this ruling and had instructed us many years ago that a search warrant would be necessary to extract the data that is contained therein.
Sigsworth: We have been obtaining search warrants to obtain cellphone records that may be evidence in criminal investigations that we’ve been conducting for several years now, so this ruling will not change or impact our operations.
Q: How many times has your department searched a cellphone thus far in 2014?
Hartung: (no response)
Levorchick: We do not have a way to track that through our computer system.
Light: We have gotten at least three search warrants this year.
Klamar: We were able to find eight instances where a phone was searched.
Meister: We’ve done only one generic search on a phone this year, with the owner giving consent.
Orzech: We only search cellphones with a warrant.
Sigsworth: Through July 1, we’ve searched 10 different cellphones and/or their affiliated cellphone numbers seeking information related to ongoing criminal investigations that were occurring at the time of the search(es). I can’t say that our personnel may not have “searched” a cellphone at the scene of an emergency. For instance, trying to find info for relatives or next-of-kin for an unconscious person. But on 10 occasions, we have searched cellphones and/or their numbers for potential evidentiary use of information in a criminal investigation. Also we do not need to have the cellphone physically in our custody to obtain the electronic records of cellphone transactions pursuant to the issuance of a search warrant.
Q: How many warrants has your department issued to search a cellphone thus far in 2014?
Hartung: We’ve obtained four search warrants this year that covered five phones.
Levorchick: Again, that information is not kept within our computer system.
Light: (I’m) not sure about consents. During consent searches of cellphones, we always make sure the person is present when we search because they have a right to limit the searches or stop the searches at any time.
Klamar: We were able to find four instances.
Meister: The department has not had any search warrants this year pertaining to cellphones.
Orzech: Our department has had seven warrants issued to search cellphones.
Sigsworth: We have sought and received 10 search warrants for cellphone searches (as of July 1).
Understanding the ruling
A week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 9-0 to restrict law enforcers from searching cellphones and smartphones.
The ruling now means:
• In almost all situations, law enforcers must either obtain a search warrant or receive consent to search cellphones.
• “Modern cellphones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet or a purse,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Privacy comes at a cost.”
• Law enforcers can still examine “the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon” but “data on the phone can endanger no one.”