Cell phone search without warrant stirs controversial debate

Courtesy Cellebrite

When you're pulled over what are your rights? The laws have been the same for years, but one thing has changed: technology.

Specialized officers are pulling over people for minor infractions and finding millions in drugs and weapons. And sometimes they do it by searching cell phones without warrant or consent.
Police say one of those traffic stops uncovered nearly 10 pounds of Meth in March 2012.

According to court documents an Oklahoma City officer from a special trafficking "interdiction" unit pulled over Noe Vergara Wuences because his paper license tag was not secured. The officer is trained to find people committing interstate trafficking crimes during routine traffic stops by looking for certain suspicious behaviors.

"They will try to talk to the driver to try to ascertain where they're going, where they're coming from, see how nervous they are there are certain cues they're looking for," explained Capt. Dexter Nelson with the Oklahoma City Police Dept.

Police say in this case a K-9 arrived minutes later and helped find drugs and two cell phones in the car.

Then, officers used one of several Cellebrite forensic devices they have within the force to unlock and download more evidence and information from the phones without a warrant.

Last week a judge ruled the evidence is allowed because of an "automobile exception rule."

"The car gives us a little bit of leeway because you're in a much more mobile form of transportation," Nelson said. The expectation of privacy is less than if a suspect was inside his or her home.

In past decades officers only had access to physical objects suspects carried. But now the ACLU says with so much on our cell phones these days the rule is outdated.

"That officer can search out virtually everything about me simply because I've been pulled over and potentially charged with a crime," said ACLU Legal Director Brady Henderson.

And while police say it helps get bad guys off the street, activists say there should be a better balance between safety and personal rights.

"There's a big, big disconnect there. Between that police practice and people living with a reasonable expectation of privacy," said Henderson.

At least two court cases expected to head to the Supreme Court on this issue. Attorneys with the ACLU say they hope they rule on them next session to update the interpretation of the law that's been the same long before we started carrying our entire lives in our pocket.