California Rules Police Can Search Text Messages Without Warrant

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SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that police do not need a warrant to search a cell phone carried by someone under arrest.

The justices determined a Ventura County deputy had the right to conduct a warrantless search of the text messages of a man he had arrested on suspicion of participating in a drug deal.

The state court ruled 5-2 that U.S. Supreme Court precedent affirms that police can search items found on defendants when they are arrested.

However, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that in 2007, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston ruled that police could not search the cell phones of drug defendants without a warrant.

The Ohio Supreme Court also found in 2009 that police did not have that right.

California Deputy Attorney General Victoria Wilson, who represented the prosecution in the case decided Monday, told the newspaper the split opinions in California and Ohio could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the cell phone issue.

The California Supreme Court decided the loss of privacy upon arrest extends beyond the arrestee’s body to include personal property.

Authorities can not only seize items but also can open and examine what they find, the ruling said.

The case stems from the arrest of defendant Gregory Diaz in 2007. A detective took the phone from Diaz’s pocket when he was arrested.

Ninety minutes later, a deputy searched its text messages without obtaining a warrant and found evidence linking Diaz to the drug deal. Diaz pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation but appealed the search.

The two dissenting justices said U.S. Supreme Court decisions from the 1970s on the right to search an arrestee’s property should not extend to modern technological devices.

In one of those decisions, the high court found that police were within their rights when they searched inside a crumpled cigarette pack and found heroin capsules.

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