While it may sound dramatic when people declare they can't survive without their cellphone, scientific studies have discovered the reasons humans feel the need to remain in constant contact with their cellular devices. Using this small but powerful computer, we are able to stream movies, interact with others and surf the internet. We can access easily-absorbed information in an instant. Our ability to send and receive texts quickly develops an internal reward system, as our brain is flooded with feel-good chemicals that enter the system whenever we receive correspondence from others. The cellphone is essentially a pleasure center that can be accessed with the right password and data plan.
As cellphone owners inevitably devote more time to their devices, the data saved reveals most aspects of the owners' lives in its catalog of contacts, images downloaded or sites frequented. Such information is of high interest to many types of people: advertisers, pollsters and law enforcement officials. Recognizing the value of phone data, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2014 designed to protect the information stored on a phone. In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court banned police from seizing and searching a phone without a warrant.
What the ruling means for California citizens is this: if you are being questioned by the police and are asked to provide your cellphone, you have a right to decline. The reason you should not provide access to your phone is that any information that is saved to your phone can be used as evidence against you. No matter how innocuous the photos or messages may have been when you sent them, such items can be taken out of context and manipulated to suit the purposes of an arresting officer.
As with most aspects of the law, the requirement that warrants be received to conduct cellphone searches does not apply in all cases. These are the exceptions to this law:
1. The suspect gives the cellphone to the officer.
You may believe that you are being helpful to an officer by handing over your phone, however, doing so may cause problems in the future. If you give an officer your phone and change your mind after you have given consent for access, you cannot rescind your offer. Opening a cellphone for an officer's inspection essentially opens your life for review.
2. The officer believes the physical components of the cellphone pose a risk.
Should the police officer believe that your cellphone can be used as a weapon because it may be hiding a razor or another sharp item, he can take your phone in order to conduct an examination. The officer may not access the data on the phone; however, he can keep it in his possession until he receives a warrant.
3. There are exigent circumstances.
The word "exigent" refers to an emergency or a pressing situation. Officers can seize a cellphone if they believe the phone contains evidence that will be destroyed if the phone isn't confiscated. Should the information on the phone reveal the location of fleeing suspect or an individual at risk of being harmed, the police do not need to wait for a warrant to access the device.
Here is the takeaway from the Supreme Court ruling: in refusing to hand over your phone, you are safeguarding your privacy. The Supreme Court Justices recognized this right. In the United States, those interrogated are protected from incrimination by their own words and by their cellphones.