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Crossroads law enforcement officials react to ruling against cellphone seizures

By Bianca Montes
June 25, 2014 at 1:25 a.m.
Updated June 26, 2014 at 1:26 a.m.

A Supreme Court visitor uses his cellphone to take a photo of the court in Washington.

The Fourth Amendment

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Searching cellphones isn't going to be as easy for law enforcement officials after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling banned officers from tapping into data without a warrant.

However, a majority of Crossroads officials don't foresee it as a hindrance to current policies.

"It has been standard procedure in our office long before this ruling," said Lt. Thomas Eisman of the Victoria County Sheriff's Office. "Knowing that personal privacy matters can be a major issue in every investigation, it is already our common practice to always obtain either a search warrant or the owner's overt consent to search a phone prior to any investigation of that device."

In an emphatic defense of privacy in the digital age, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police generally can't search cellphones of people they arrest without first getting search warrants.

"The Supreme Court's decision on requiring a search warrant to view cellphone contents does not come as a big surprise given the proliferation of personal cellphones and the advancement of cellphone technology," Victoria Police Chief J.J. Craig said in an email. "I don't anticipate that this ruling will have a negative impact with our current policy and procedures as we currently pursue search warrants now when we have probable cause to search a phone's contents for evidence to a crime. We would stress this process over obtaining consent to search, and we did not routinely search phones as a matter of standard practice."

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals made a similar ruling in February, barring the warrantless search of cellphones that have been seized during arrests in Texas.

Cellphones are unlike anything else police may find on someone they arrest, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the Supreme Court decision. They are "not just another technological convenience," he said, but ubiquitous, increasingly powerful computers that contain vast quantities of personal, sensitive information.

Goliad County Sheriff Kirby Brumby, Edna Police Capt. Bruce McConathy and Ganado Police Chief Rodney Roberson echoed Eisman's sentiment, saying they already pursue warrants to search cellphones.

"I can't say I'm surprised with the ruling," McConathy said. "A cellphone is such a private piece of property."

However, Calhoun County Sheriff George Aleman said he looks at the change as a setback, calling it a losing call for law enforcement.

"When you're dealing with dope dealers, whose phones are like a log book of their customers, that helps us with investigation; it's a loss," he said. "We'll just have to adjust and keep going."

Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback also considers the recent ruling a hurdle for law enforcement.

If a person were arrested before, he said, officers were able to seize his or her cellphone, and if needed, use the data on it to help build their case. Now, "it's just another step for us - another hurdle."

George Filley, a Victoria defense attorney, called the ruling a major victory for the people.

"It reaffirms the right of privacy that we have in our cellphones," Filley said. "They can no longer just say, 'This guy was arrested, he has a cellphone, and let's go in there and see what we can use.'"

Under the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, police generally need a warrant before they can conduct a search. The warrant itself must be based on probable cause, evidence that a crime has been committed.

The ruling will protect cellphones from warrantless searches going forward, but it may not be of much help to defendants in pending cases or those whose convictions are final, said Gerry Morris, of Austin, a vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Morris said courts could allow evidence to be used from police searches of cellphones that were done in "good faith" and relied on the law as it stood when the searches were conducted.

By ruling as it did, the Supreme Court chose not to extend earlier decisions from the 1970s - when cellphone technology was not yet available - that allow police to empty a suspect's pockets and examine whatever they find to ensure officers' safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.

"Cellphones not only contain our contacts and people we talk to every day," Filley said, "but cellphones also track day-to-day travels: where (we) stop, what (our) habits are and where (we) are at any particular time - it should be difficult for the government to search."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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