Smartphones, Your Privacy (or lack thereof), and the 4th Amendment

Posted on March 05, 2012 in General News

It is difficult to imagine how the generations before us survived without the technology available today. I know books helped, but Google provides answers in seconds. Data, translations, email, directions, and the answers to even the most random questions are instantaneously delivered upon request. Now, with smartphones we carry these capabilities, as well as our private lives, with us everywhere that we go. Our texts, emails, internet search histories, Facebook messages, videos, photos, and GPS trackings reveal a lot about our day, movements, preferences, and thoughts. While we gain convenience with this technology, the information is also valuable to others for a number of reasons. For example, retailers already used our smartphones to track our whereabouts at the Short Pump mall. It is an efficient way to cheaply target marketing and learn our preferences without asking us. Luckily this experiment was shut down pretty quickly. Not only may smartphones impact businesses, but it is inevitable (at least in the foreseeable future) that they will have a huge impact on the criminal justice system and how law enforcement agencies gain private, perhaps incriminating information, about us.

The United States Supreme Court and the Virginia Supreme Court have yet to determine whether it is a violation of a person’s 4thAmendment rights for the police to search a person’s smartphone incident to arrest. Courts across the country have rendered split decisions on this very question. As a reminder, the 4th Amendment protects a person from unreasonable searches and seizures. So what does this mean?

It means that until the courts hold that our smartphones cannot be searched incident to arrest, our private lives may be available to be viewed and used against us, if appropriate. For example, under the current law, it is not clear that it would be impermissible for a police officer to search a person’s smartphone upon arresting her for trespass. Presumably, a person’s phone has nothing to do with trespass, and there is no obvious reason in most cases as to why an officer would have a reasonable articulable suspicion that the phone contains evidence of the crime of trespass. Today, however, a person’s smartphone might be searched under this very scenario. What about a DUI? Let’s say a person is pulled over for swerving, alcohol is smelled, and field tests are failed. The person is arrested, and his phone is searched on the drive to the jail for the breathalyzer test. Texts on the phone reveal that the person, who now sits silently in the back of the patrol car, told his friends not less than an hour ago that he was on his eighth beer. In this scenario, one might feel inclined to be grateful to the police for making sure this person, who undoubtedly is a hazard to public safety, is convicted. Law enforcement agencies, however, have other avenues for collecting evidence to convict this offender without violating his privacy rights. After all, remember that we did not have smartphones until a few years ago and people have been convicted of DUIs for decades.

So what should you do? Always be polite and cooperative to the police, but handing over your smartphone for a voluntary search is definitely one way to make sure that any evidence found on your phone can be used against you without a 4th Amendment violation challenge. In addition, put a password on your phone. It will be interesting to see how courts adapt to this ever-changing technology.