The amount of personal information we all carry around in our pockets is quite remarkable, yet too few people appreciate the liabilities associated with owning a smartphone. Thankfully, in the summer of 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that, in most cases, law enforcement agencies must obtain a warrant before searching the cellphone of an arrested individual.
The Court’s ruling fundamentally recognizes that a cellphone (and especially a smartphone) is different than nearly any other object that suspects are likely to be carrying. In light of this, it deserves full protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
That being said, careless use of a cellphone sometimes gets people into trouble with law enforcement. A surprising number of individuals accidentally dial 911 from their phones every year. And while “butt-dial” calls can slow down emergency services by tying up phone lines, they can also alert law enforcement that a cellphone’s owner has recently engaged in illegal and/or criminal activity.
One recent example comes from the Wisconsin village of Rothschild, which is near Wausau. According to news sources, five women and two men were drinking underage at a party in someone’s home. During the party, one of the guests butt-dialed 911 on their cellphone. The dispatcher could hear conversation but no actual responses to the dispatcher’s questions. Therefore, a police officer was sent to the source of the call.
Because of that accidental call, seven young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 were cited for underage drinking. The offense itself is an activity so common among older teenagers that it would hardly be newsworthy if one of the partygoers hadn’t been responsible for summoning the police.
All in all, this was a fairly tame example of butt-dialing leading to criminal charges or citations. In recent years, there have been many other stories of offenders who have discussed drug deals, burglaries and other serious crimes without realizing that they were on a conference call with law enforcement.
If you have a teenager at home, please remind them that cellphones can be a liability as well as an asset. And if they accidentally dial 911 while engaged in a less-than-wise activity, their cellphones could land them in serious legal trouble.