Local cops see slight cellphone impact

By Valerie Smith / The Bulletin


Published Jul 6, 2014 at 12:02AM / Updated Jul 7, 2014 at 04:09PM

Local law enforcement officials believe the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on cellphones will have an impact on how they do their jobs, but not a significant one.

The court ruled late last month that under the Fourth Amendment cellphones can no longer be searched by law enforcement without a warrant. Only extraordinary circumstances would allow for a warrantless search of a cellphone.

In the opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that cellphones are “minicomputers” that could also be called “cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.” He noted in his opinion that because the phones have so much storage capacity, they’re different from other items that could be found in a routine search of someone under arrest.

The Bend Police Department in most cases has always received consent before searching a cellphone, Bend Police Chief Jim Porter said last week.

“In those cases when we didn’t get consent, it added time to the investigation because we had to obtain a search warrant,” he said.

With the Supreme Court ruling, there is concern the timely seizure of cellphones will be more difficult, which can damage useful evidence. Cellphone data can be erased manually or through a provider in a matter of seconds, according to Deschutes County Sheriff’s Capt. Scott Beard.

“Since cellphones can be erased so quickly, it hinders the type of evidence we retrieve,” he said. “Maybe a spouse or friend has access to a suspect’s cellphone; they will be able to erase useful information. That will definitely impede on some investigations. We need to come up with types of lawful ways to get cellphones secured right away.”

Bronson J. James, an attorney who defended a Linn County man whose case centered on a warrantless cellphone search and went to the Oregon Court of Appeals, believes cellphone searches have become standard for law enforcement, and that the ruling will affect thousands of cases nationwide.

“Certainly any case that is currently in the system is going to have to be evaluated in regards to the recent ruling,” said James. “It will affect the cases that are currently in the system. It is not going to retract cases that have reached a ruling or finality.”

Deschutes County District Attorney Patrick Flaherty feels that in the Linn County case that was appealed in 2010, law enforcement should have obtained a warrant for the search.

“In that kind of case, we would have gotten a search warrant,” he said. “In our cases, we have usually always gotten consent or supplied a search warrant. I don’t think the ruling will impede on our ability to do justice and prosecute.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, vsmith@bendbulletin.com