The line between individual rights and government authority to act in the interest of those rights moves on a regular basis. The ebb and flow of court decisions determines the direction of how Americans should be treated under the Constitution.
A recent wave in American legal interpretation occurred when the California Supreme Court held that warrantless evidence obtained from an arrestee’s cell phone, which revealed his alleged participation in a drug ring, was admissible in court. In this case, the line of law swings too far in the direction of government authority and must reverse toward individual freedoms.
Using the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects Americans against unreasonable search and seizure, the principle, circumstances and legal ramifications of cell phone evidence nullify a reasonable standard for search.
First, the legal principle of an arrest makes a cell phone search unreasonable. Arrests are not convictions and therefore do not involve the same sacrifice of rights as guilt for a crime. Police should only be able to search for evidence immediately pertaining to the arrest at the time.
In the California case, the police deputy arresting the subject probed into cell phone records without a warrant. Cell phone records involve far more than the single area of suspicion, especially when the arrest was not for drug ring conspiracy in the first place.
Furthermore, by overstepping boundaries in this way, the police risk losing all leads on the subject under the “exclusionary rule,” which prohibits any evidence found to be obtained improperly.
Next, the circumstances of a cell phone search during an arrest prove lack of reason. Many exceptions to the “reasonable search” standard exist to allow police effectiveness, but virtually none should apply to cell phones.
Examples of failed exceptions first include the “emergency situation” exception that sometimes is used in arrest environments, as a cell phone does not create an immediate need for action.
Second are exceptions used for “procedural necessity”, such as searching a car quickly to avoid blocking traffic. These also do not stand, as the cell phone search did not hinder the delivery of justice or safety at the time.
Third is the “plain view” doctrine, which justifies a search if a law enforcement official easily sees a compromising piece of evidence. Cell phones, however, are inscrutable. Even if an officer sees a phone, little will indicate whether the content of the phone is incriminating, unlike conventional “plain view” exceptions used for guns or drugs.
The final reason a cell phone search in an arrest is an infringement on liberty is its upside-down nature in law. A 2008 California case of school cell phone searches found the need for reasonable assumption that a search will reveal evidence.
With conventional evidence, this might be the case, as going “in” for a search means reducing outside factors and finding the desired object. With cell phones, it is the other way around. The wealth of evidence stored electronically on phones makes them risky in court, especially by warrantless search.
By understanding the nature of American political freedoms and making the proper sacrifice of liberty to attain them, citizens can avoid an arbitrary, unjust system and entrust cell phone searches to careful examination of the courts.
Pearce Edwards is a sophomore political science and history double major from Albuquerque, N.M.