In 2014’s Riley v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that law enforcement cannot search the contents of your phone without a warrant, even when they’re arresting you.
The high court specifically found that modern cellphones are not like the contents of your pocket. They’re powerful computers that hold a great deal of personal information, including correspondence, bank account information and a history of the carrier’s location.
All of that information is protected by the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the “unreasonable” search and seizure of people in the United States and their property.
Now, however, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Wisconsin, has cut back on that ruling. Police generally do need warrants before searching the contents of your cellphone, the Seventh Circuit said, unless you’re on parole or probation and accused of a violation.
Parolees and probationers have less right to privacy
The ruling comes in the case of a man on parole for a drug crime who was accused of failing to report to his parole officer. When he was arrested, the police searched him and found drugs in the case of his cellphone. The cellphone was taken into evidence.
Later, without getting a warrant, an investigator searched the contents of the phone and allegedly found child pornography.
Did the investigator have probable cause to search the data in the phone based on having found drugs in the phone’s casing? Perhaps not. However, the Seventh Circuit essentially ruled that the defendant’s status as a parolee meant the Fourth Amendment doesn’t really apply to him. As he was on parole, all of his property was subject to warrantless searches.
There may be nothing more personal than your phone, but that doesn’t mean the police can never search it. Since parolees (and probationers) are still technically in the custody of the government, the government can search their cellphones on a whim.