U.S. Court: Police can search cellphones when arrest is involved

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 3/9/2012

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled that police are allowed to search cellphone data without a warrant when an arrest is involved.

In a case titled United States v. Flores-Lopez, the appeals judge sided with other courts in saying that cellphone records, including phone numbers as part of a contact list, are no different than information written on paper or in an address book, which are already subject to search.

The defendant in the case, Abel Flores-Lopez, argued that the search of his cellphone in an attempt to obtain his cellphone should have been inadmissible in court. The police used the number to later search phone records and develop their case against Flores-Lopez, a suspected trafficker of methamphetamine.

A judge in a lower court sided with the prosecution against Flores-Lopez, saying the search was lawful.

Writing for the Seventh Circuit in the Feb. 29 decision in the appeal, Judge Richard A. Posner cited other cases in which police searched a person’s address book, or diary, to obtain information including phone numbers. Posner said an address app on a cell phone was no different a paper address book.

“So opening the diary found on the suspect whom the police have arrested, to verify his name and address and discover whether the diary contains information relevant to the crime for which he has been arrested, clearly is permissible,” Posner wrote, “and what happened in this case was similar but even less intrusive, since a cellphone’s phone number can be found without searching the phone’s contents, unless the phone is password protected – and on some cellphones even if it is.”

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