Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 21, 2014

As technology progresses, learning to harness and utilize its potential is not only a continuous challenge for consumers, but knowing exactly how that information fits into the law is a now-constant process for law enforcement agents.

When authorities can lawfully search a cellular phone, for example, is something Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell says depends heavily on the situation.

“Phones are something that we store all of our most intimate information in now,” Merrell said. “And it’s important that we hold true to privacy laws.”

But, Merrell said those laws can be difficult to interpret and are often highly contested means of obtaining information.

“It can be complicated,” he said. “The thing is, the law says the privacy that is protected is the privacy of the person who owns the phone. So, lets say we have a conversation: I’m protected, but you aren’t.”

But even the means by which that information is obtained, and just when it can be collected, is sending cases to higher courts all over the country.

“You know, if an officer pulls someone over, and they are so drunk they can’t tell him who they are, (a cell phone) might be a means to find out a person’s identity,” he said. “But, if officers come across something else, they have to go back and get a warrant.”

Merrell said that in situations where a suspect or victim is incapacitated in some respect, officers must be able to distinguish between information found in devices that is somewhat relatable to the current situation and any other images or information that would require warrants before further searches or seizures could take place.

But, while Merrell said that careful consideration has worked so far in Covington County, officers could soon see more freedom to search cellular devices without warrants. The U.S. Supreme Court in April heard arguments over whether or not police and other law enforcement officers should have the right to unbridled searches of cellular phones, or whether the contents of those devices should be treated as private property, such as the inside of a home.

Merrell said, at least for now, it would be unlawful for officers to, for example, stop someone for DUI and to subsequently perform a search of the person’s phone and charge them with another crime.

In only the last six months alone, Covington County authorities have made a pair of arrests involving obscene images of minors found on cellular phones and other electronic devices. In both cases, however, probable cause resulted in the issuing of warrants for the seizure of those devices.

While a Supreme Court ruling to uphold electronic devices as an extension of private property such as homes – where protection is greatest – is a possibility, a ruling allowing officers more freedom could change how arrests are made.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on the matter in June.