Judges and lawmakers across the country are wrangling over whether and when law enforcement authorities can peer into suspects' cellphones, and the cornucopia of evidence they provide.
A Rhode Island judge threw out cellphone evidence that led to a man being charged with the murder of a 6-year-old boy, saying the police needed a search warrant. A court in Washington compared text messages to voice-mail messages that can be overheard by anyone in a room and are therefore not protected by state privacy laws. In Louisiana, a federal appeals court is weighing whether location records stored in smartphones deserve privacy protection, or whether they are "business records" that belong to the phone companies.
"The courts are all over the place," said Hanni Fakhoury, a criminal lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group. "They can't even agree if there's a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages that would trigger Fourth Amendment protection."
The issue will attract attention Thursday when a Senate committee considers limited changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that regulates how the government can monitor digital communications. Courts have used it to permit warrantless surveillance of certain kinds of cellphone data. A proposed amendment would require the police to obtain a warrant to search email, no matter how old it is, updating a provision that allows warrantless searches of emails more than 180 days old.
As technology races ahead of the law, courts and lawmakers are still trying to figure out how to think about the often intimate data that cellphones contain, said Peter P. Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University. Neither the 1986 statute nor the Constitution, he said, could have anticipated how much information cellphones are privy to, including detailed records of people's travels and diagrams of their friends.
"It didn't take into account what the modern cellphone has - your location, the content of communications that are easily readable, including Facebook posts, chats, texts and all that stuff," Swire said.
Courts have also issued divergent rulings on when and how cellphones can be inspected. An Ohio court ruled that the police needed a warrant to search a cellphone because, unlike a piece of paper that might be stuffed inside a suspect's pocket and can be confiscated during an arrest, a cellphone may hold "large amounts of private data."
But California's highest court said the police could look through a cellphone without a warrant so long as the phone was with the suspect at the time of arrest.
Judges across the country have written tomes about whether a cellphone is akin to a "container" - like a suitcase stuffed with marijuana that the police might find in the trunk of a car - or whether, as the judge in the Rhode Island murder case suggested, it is more comparable to a face-to-face conversation. That judge, Judith C. Savage, described text messages as "raw, unvarnished and immediate, revealing the most intimate of thoughts and emotions."
That is why, she said, citizens can reasonably expect them to be private.
There is little disagreement about the value of cellphone data to the police. In response to a congressional inquiry, cellphone carriers said they responded in 2011 to 1.3 million demands from law enforcement agencies for text messages and other information about subscribers.
Among the most precious information in criminal inquiries is the location of suspects, and when it comes to location records captured by smartphones, court rulings have also been inconsistent. Privacy advocates say a trail of where people go is inherently private, while law enforcement authorities say that consumers have no privacy claim over signals transmitted from an individual mobile device to a phone company's communications tower, which they refer to as third-party data.
Delaware, Maryland and Oklahoma have proposed legislation that would require the police to obtain a warrant before demanding location records from cellphone carriers. California passed such a law in August after intense lobbying by privacy advocates, including Fakhoury's group. But Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, questioning whether it struck "the right balance between the operational needs of law enforcement and individual expectations of privacy."
Similar legislation has been proposed in Congress.
Lacking a clear federal statute, the courts have been unable to reach a consensus. In Texas, a federal appeals court said this year that law enforcement officials did not need a warrant to track suspects through cellphones. In Louisiana, a federal appeals court is considering a similar case. Prosecutors are arguing that location information is part of cellphone carriers' business records and thus not constitutionally protected.
The Supreme Court has not directly tackled the issue, except to declare, in a landmark ruling this year, that police must obtain a search warrant to install a GPS tracking device on someone's private property.
"We are in a constitutional moment for location tracking," said Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. "It's percolating in all these places."
The Rhode Island case began shortly after 6 a.m. on a Sunday in October 2009, when Trisha Oliver called 911 to say that her son, Marco Nieves, 6, was unconscious in his bed. An ambulance rushed the boy to the hospital. A police officer also responded to the call, and Oliver escorted him through the bedrooms of her apartment. She then went to the hospital, leaving the police officer behind.
The officer heard a "beeping" in the kitchen, according to court papers. He picked up an LG-brand cellphone from the counter and saw this message: "Wat if I got 2 take him 2 da hospital wat do I say and dos marks on his neck omg." It appeared to be from Oliver to her boyfriend, Michael Patino, court documents said.
Patino, 30, who was in the apartment at the time, was taken to the police station for questioning. The cellphone he had with him was seized. By evening, the boy was dead. The cause of death, according to court records, was "blunt force trauma to the abdomen which perforated his small intestine."
Patino was charged with Marco's murder.
During the investigation, the police obtained more than a dozen search warrants for the cellphones of Patino, Oliver and their relatives. They also obtained records of phone calls and voice-mail messages from the cellphone carriers.
Nearly three years later, in a 190-page ruling, Savage sharply criticized the police.
The first police officer had no right to look at the phone without a search warrant, the judge ruled. It was not in "plain view," she wrote, nor did Oliver give her consent to search it. The court said Patino could reasonably have expected the text messages he exchanged with Oliver to be free from police scrutiny.
The judge then suppressed the bounty of evidence that the prosecution had secured through warrants, including the text message that had initially drawn the police officer's attention.
"Given the amount of private information that can be readily gleaned from the contents of a person's cellphone and text messages - and the heightened concerns for privacy as a result - this court will not expand the warrantless search exceptions to include the search of a cellphone and the viewing of text messages," she wrote.
Patino remains in jail while the case is on appeal in the state's Supreme Court. A lawyer for Patino did not respond to a request for comment.
Just months before Savage's ruling, the Rhode Island legislature passed a law compelling the police to obtain a warrant to search a cellphone, even if they find it during an arrest. Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, vetoed the bill, saying, "The courts, and not the legislature, are better suited to resolve these complex and case-specific issues."
© 2012, The New York Times News Service