Officers are being briefed during roll calls, new procedures are in place, and prosecutors are considering the effect on potentially thousands of pending court cases after the Supreme Court's ruling that restricts police searches of cellphones.
From Los Angeles to New York, and in San Diego, Chicago and Houston, officials met to discuss Wednesday's unanimous ruling that could make it harder for officers to quickly find incriminating evidence. The ruling prohibits law enforcement from searching an arrestee's cellphone without a warrant unless a person's safety or life may be in danger.
Because cellphone technology has so rapidly advanced over the last decade, more information than ever before -- including personal documents, photos and emails -- is now stored on these devices. For investigators, they can be a treasure trove of suspects' pictures with fellow gang members, not to mention text messages and call records that help police find accomplices or victims.
Few, if any, in law enforcement circles were surprised by the high court's ruling, and they said many cautious investigators were already getting warrants to ensure evidence doesn't get tossed out of trials. But they also universally acknowledged that it would make their jobs more difficult, especially for the rank-and-file patrol officer.
"It's going to be more cumbersome, it's going to take more work, it's going to take more time," said Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt. Kent Wegener, of the Major Crimes Bureau. Wegener said his investigators routinely seek search warrants for their cases.
In Houston, prosecutors were already treating cellphones as personal property with privacy rights and advising police officers that if they weren't given permission, they'd need a search warrant to access the devices, said Bill Exley, a prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney's office.
The Constitution's Fourth Amendment requires police generally to have a judge sign a warrant that's based on "probable cause," or evidence that a crime has been committed. But cellphones have been treated like any other item in an arrestee's possession, meaning they could be examined to ensure the officer's safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.
The Supreme Court's decision examined two cases that arose after arrests in San Diego and Boston. In San Diego, police found indications of gang membership when they looked through a defendant's smartphone, and prosecutors used video and photographs from the phone to persuade a jury to convict him of attempted murder and other charges. In Boston, police used the call log on an arrested man's flip phone to lead them to his home, where they found drugs, a gun and ammunition. (continued...)
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