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Phones not searchable after owner jailed, rules Texas appeals court

updated 02:54 pm EST, Fri February 28, 2014

Mobile phones search by law enforcement after jailing questioned by court

Law enforcement officials cannot search a prisoner's mobile phone once they have been jailed, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled. The 7-1 decision from the judges means that mobile devices seized at the time of arrest cannot be searched after the owner has gone to jail, as they still have some expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment.

The case that prompted the ruling involved student Anthony Granville, who was arrested after causing a disturbance on a school bus, reports Ars Technica. An officer unrelated to the arrest was later told Granville had used his cellphone to photograph another student in the bathroom before being arrested, which led to the officer searching through Granville's cellphone while it was stored in the booking room. The officer found the image and charged Granville with the state felony of Improper Photography.

Lawyers for Granville suppressed the new evidence, though state prosecutors disagreed, arguing prisoners have no expectation of privacy, and that searching a cellphone is similar to examining the clothes he was wearing as he went to prison. After the court disagreed with the prosecution and allowed the suppression, the state appealed, but to no avail.

Texas Supreme Court Building, location of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
Texas Supreme Court Building, location of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Judge Cochran, one of the seven judges in the majority ruling, remarked that the Fourth Amendment's right for "people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" applies here. "Our most private information is now frequently stored in electronic devices such as computers, laptops, iPads, and cellphones, or in 'the cloud' and accessible by those electronic devices," writes Cochran, continuing "But the 'central concern underlying the Fourth Amendment' has remained the same throughout the centuries; it is the 'concern about giving police officers unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person's effects'," and stating that the case in question equates to "rummaging through a citizen's electronic private effects - a cell phone - without a warrant."

While the reach of the decision extends to just Texas, it does not answer the legalities of a cellphone search at the time of arrest, something the Supreme Court will be ruling on sometime later this year. It also does not appear to impact the data-collection activities of the NSA, though the ongoing revelations were referenced as part of Cochran's ruling.

By Electronista Staff
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