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Supreme Court makes the right call regarding smartphones

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POSTED July 3, 2014 12:01 a.m.

Imagine a cell phone weighing two pounds, getting only a half hour talk time per charge, being only used to make voice calls, and costing $3,995.

Forty-one years ago the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X rolled out as the first consumer cell phone. Motorola struggled to keep up with the demand.

We’ve come a long way since 1983. Today the Apple iPhone5 weighs 3.95 ounces, can have five hours plus of use time per charge, can do just about anything short of launching a nuclear attack, and costs as low as $199.

And as bizarre as it may seem, some manufacturers such as Amazon are pushing models with nary a hint that you can still use it to make voice calls instead focusing marketing on quickly being able to shop and make transactions.

It is against this backdrop that conservatives and liberals alike on the nation’s highest court agreed a cell phone is more than just something you carry on your person.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the police — basically the government — can’t search your smartphone or similar device without a warrant from a judge.

Law enforcement had been operating under the assumption smartphones were fair game during arrests in the same category as searching a person’s pockets and wallet. Their reasoning is if a suspect is carrying a smartphone in public he should expect no privacy.

That is akin, though, to applying the same laws that dominated the era of wall crank phones and four party lines to 2014 when the government wants to listen into your phone calls.

The unanimous Supreme Court decision set the stage for a future ruling on whether the government can simply vacuum up all citizens’ calls, texts, and device key strokes without cause and without a warrant.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted in last week’s ruling that, “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’”

It follows a unanimous ruling two years ago where the high court banned the FBI from attaching GPS devices to a suspected drug dealer’s vehicle without first obtaining a warrant.

There is little doubt that virtually all smartphone users employ their devices in such a manner that a search of them gives an absolute clear picture of everything from financial transactions, correspondence, and reading habits to political and religious activity that before technology evolved to this point were easily contained from the prying eyes of the government.

Make no doubt about it. This ruling is not narrowly focused on your local police department. Virtually every federal agency has its own law enforcement arm whether it is criminal or civil. A number of federal agencies such as the IRS even have their own SWAT teams. The government is already doing broad warrantless sweeps gathering information on individuals who use smartphones and other electronic devices.

Some have panned the ruling saying it makes the work of law enforcement more difficult. It doesn’t. In its most basic form it is a ruling that says the government must adhere to constitutional safeguards for privacy and to make sure the people are safe from search and seizures without cause and a warrant. It’s a pretty basic 238-year-old American tradition rooted in the Bill of Rights.

While drug dealers and such have switched to smartphones from land lines, it is basically the same concept save for today’s devices are a virtual autobiography of a person’s life. The government never had that kind of access back when the dominating form of non person-to-person communication was the tethered phone.

If anything, social media and electronic devices in recent years have made the job of law enforcement much easier without trampling on constitutional rights of suspects.

Facebook postings, YouTube videos, and illegal transactions done via the Internet are all fair game since they are done without any reasonable expectation of privacy.

A good number of criminals are, for want of a better word, stupid. Their posting of videos of their crimes underscores that observation.

As for those who use the Internet today for long-distance illegal transactions, they are actually making it easier for law enforcement to discover illicit activities.

Prostitution, as an example, is no longer advertised exclusively on such wide spread forums as bathroom walls, targeted publications, and on-street encounters. More and more of it is being concentrated on the Internet through such sites as Craig’s List.

A law enforcement vice squad could easily keep going non-stop by using decoys surfing the web as opposed to approaching street walkers.

There is an argument the Internet, mobile electronic devices and social media is making crime more prevalent and easier to commit therefore overpowering law enforcement. That might be the case but it is also just as likely that the Internet has not increased criminal activity but simply brings more of it out into the open.

While there is a high societal value to arresting and prosecuting those suspected of criminal wrongdoing, it should never be done by compromising the rights of the accused or the innocent.

It is something that liberal and conservative justices both whole heartedly agreed upon.


This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.

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