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Court’s cell phone ruling a step forward

It’s the technological age. For some people, their entire lives are stored on their cell phones, which nowadays can additionally function as cameras, camcorders, day planners, computers and phonebooks. And nearly every adult not only has a cell phone, but most carry it with them constantly. In light of the vast amount of information that can be stored, and the private nature of some of it, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in Riley v. California that if police want to get inside your phone they will need a warrant to do so.

How does that compare with what’s been happening in our neck of the woods? Well, several local police departments say they are already obtaining search warrants when they want to go through someone’s cell phone.

Wilton Police Chief Brent Hautanen told us, “[Cell phones] contain information that has a level of expectation of privacy. We treat it the same as seizing a computer. When you get down to it, most phones nowadays are essentially small computers.”

Sgt. Scott Stevens of the Jaffrey Police Department said the court’s ruling is “not a big issue” for his department, because they too are already applying for warrants to search phones.

In the case involving former Peterborough firefighter Gregory Potter, who has been charged with setting several fires in the town of Durham on Feb. 2, 2013, pictures on Potter’s cell phone are a key piece of evidence for the prosecution. And the investigators in his case also obtained a search warrant before going through his phone, although his attorney is arguing that it was unreasonable search.

In Riley v. California, the state argued that with new ways to store information, comes new ways to destroy information, referring to remote wiping techniques. But that technology is not prevalent enough to be a persuasive argument to seize data without a warrant. And as that technology develops, so has technology to reconstruct data that has been destroyed or scrambled.

This ruling calling for search warrants does not have to impede investigators. If there is enough cause to search a suspect’s cell phone, than there is likely enough cause to obtain a warrant to do so.

In the wake of the 2007 National Security Agency wiretapping scandal, this Supreme Court decision is a step forward in the recognition of just how integral cell phones are in the lives of the average citizen — and their right to protect the not-so-insignificant amount of personal information they can carry.

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