A simple search or a Pandora’s Box?

When the police stop you for a traffic violation, that stop opens a door on your life. They run your license plate, looking for any other traffic or other violations, arrest warrants or other criminal charges. If they suspect that you are intoxicated, they can charge you with a DUI, arrest you, take you into custody and impound your vehicle.

During this process, they inventory your possessions. If you are like most people, you probably carry a cellphone. And if you are like thousands of people in Chattanooga, you may carry a smartphone, like an iPhone or Android. With this, police have access to your entire life. From phone numbers and text messages, to pictures, Facebook pages and selfies, there is a vast store of information, literally at the officer’s fingertips.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether they should require the police to obtain a warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, or if they should allow the search incident to an arrest, as they have for decades.

Those searches, which otherwise would violated the Fourth Amendment, are allowed for the safety of the officer making the arrest. At first they were only allowed on the body of the person, and with automobiles, they expanded to the passenger compartment.

While the police like to couch searches of cellphones in the language of exigent circumstances, that there is concern for safety, a greater concern is that the cellphone could be “wiped” by the bad guys before the police can harvest the information and evidence of a crime destroyed.

Given the reality of how people use smart phones today, is opening the door on warrantless searches cellphones a Pandora’s Box that could virtually nullify the Fourth Amendment?

Source:, “Weighing The Risks Of Warrantless Phone Searches During Arrests,” Nina Totenberg, April 29, 2014

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