The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

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OUR OPINION: Florida Supreme Court rules police need warrant to search cell phones

In a world of shrinking privacy and ever more tenuous rights, where cameras are being used by cities to nab speeders on wheels, too, the Florida Supreme Court has raised the caution flag and added some common sense to what’s left of citizens’ privacy.

In the Thursday ruling, Florida’s highest court clarified that police don’t have the right to scroll through a person’s Smartphone without getting a search warrant first.

State Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, already had a bill that would have made it illegal for police to use cell phone information without a warrant. The court’s ruling takes care of the issue for now.

Civil libertarians point out that Florida needs to update its search laws to keep up with the techy times.

Police, for their part, fear that time will be lost by having to find a judge to sign a warrant and criminals will get away. Not necessarily.

As former Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti told Herald reporter Julie Brown, the court’s ruling still allows officers making an arrest to take custody of the phone, which would prevent a suspect from deleting crucial evidence that can be obtained later with a warrant.

“It’s not that difficult to go that extra step and we’ve found out that in court you leave yourselves open to a challenge if you don’t do it,’’ said Mr. Lamberti. The Broward Sheriff’s Office has been obtaining warrants for such cell phone searches for the past year under a court order.

The 5-2 ruling makes clear that police do have a right to seize a phone during an arrest — an important tool for law enforcement until the case is resolved. Officers simply cannot scroll through the contents without the warrant, which is similar to what’s now required under the law for searches of home computers.

“Vast amounts of private, personal information can be stored and accessed in or through these small electronic devices, including not just phone numbers and call history, but also photos, videos, bank records, medical information, daily planners, and even correspondence between individuals through applications such as Facebook and Twitter,” wrote Justice Fred Lewis.

The ruling reverses an appeals court decision in a Jacksonville case involving the arrest of Cedric Smallwood, accused of robbing a convenience store in 2008. Had police first gotten a warrant they could have put into evidence photos on Smallwood’s phone of a gun and stacks of money.

The Florida Legislature needs to update the laws governing search warrants to balance lawful citizens’ right to privacy with the need to protect our communities from criminals.

Requiring a warrant to search cell phone information accomplishes both goals and upholds the Fourth Amendment of our Constitution.

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