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Weighing supreme court cell phone ruling


Federal law — Oregon leaders suspect the state will see little impact from recent decision

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 25 that police officers usually need a warrant before searching the cellphone of an arrested suspect. The decision is a win for people concerned about privacy rights in the digital age and a setback for police searches.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum appeared unconcerned by the decision, saying she doesn’t think the ruling will make a great difference to the way police work here.

“Typically when a search is done (in connection with) an arrest, if a cell phone is taken they often do obtain a warrant,” she said. “They take it into the station, they get a warrant and then they search it.”by: SUBMITTED - Submitted photo / Newberg Graphic
Decision - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that police officers usually need a warrant before searching the cellphone of an arrested suspect, a decision trumpeted by people concerned about privacy rights in the digital age.

Rosenblum said she hasn’t had a chance to read the ruling yet. But as a previous federal prosecutor and state trial judge, she’s not worried.

“And I don’t actually think that it worries most law enforcement a whole lot,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I was just in a session during our symposium on Internet privacy where a police officer from the Salem Police Department said he had no quarrel with the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Last year, as the cell phone case was making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rosenblum tried to look into how it would affect cases here. “I did inquire as to whether there were cases on appeal that were similar to this and there might be one or two, but that’s it, to my knowledge.”

Rosenblum said she doesn’t know how many Oregon cases there are where the defendant’s attorney objected to the search of a cell phone. But this ruling could give those defendants grounds to appeal.

A spokesman for the Clackamas County District Attorney’s office also said that count law enforcement officers usually get search warrants when cell phones are involved.

Dave Fidanque of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon agreed with Rosenblum that the ruling probably won’t make a big difference in the way police handle searches in Oregon.

“For one thing, the police officials will still be able to seize a telephone when they have cause to believe that there is information related to a crime that someone’s been arrested for,” Fidanque said. “They’re just going to have to get a warrant before they can go snooping through that phone.”

But Fidanque differed with Rosenblum, saying police agencies in Oregon have been routinely looking at cell phones without a warrant.

He said that last year the ACLU of Oregon asked several law enforcement agencies if they were accessing location information without a warrant. He said most agencies responded they weren’t looking for that information. Others didn’t reply to the inquiry.

Fidanque pointed out that there are many ways authorities could search for cell data.

“We have not asked how many police agencies in Oregon have been routinely using technology like Cell Bright that allows them to essentially clone all of the information on a cell phone in just a matter of minutes,” he said. “But clearly, if they were doing that, they won’t be able to do it anymore.”

Fidanque said it’s too soon to say whether this decision will affect any pending Oregon cases, adding that will depend on the facts in each case.

Fidanque said the ruling is important for digital privacy: “The court recognized unanimously that in a digital era we are carrying around in our pockets an amount of information that otherwise would have taken up file cabinets in the old days.”

The opinion allowed for some emergency situations in which a warrantless search would be permitted.