Andromeda’s Vortex

Illegal cellular phone searches

By Atty. Farah G. Decano


THE advent of digital age ushered in the decline of privacy.  Nowadays, we don’t just use the cellular phones to call others. We use these gadgets to purchase items online, do research, listen to music, and check our emails. The high dependence on digital phones by the populace is understandable.  Holding this diminutive device is like having the entire library, every generation’s music and video collections, the world map and guides in the palm of our hands.

This reliance on the cellular phone, however, does not come free.  We give up more than just our money paying for the data charges and wi-fi connection.  We are unwittingly surrendering information to data gatherers for purposes of businesses, survey and profiling. Worse, we live digital footprints accessible by anyone who has the technology.

I bumped into some US cases regarding the police searches of cellular phones against the will or without the consent of the owner: Riley vs. California, 573 US 373 (2014)  and  Carpenter vs. United States , No. 16-402  (2018).  The cases discussed the requirements for search of cellular records pursuant to a criminal case.

In the Riley case, law enforcers seized the cellular phone of the accused who was then legally arrested. The officers opened his cellphone and looked into his phone files and was charged for another crime.  The US Supreme Court speaking though Justice Roberts declared that these acts constituted illegal search and that whatever evidence procured from such illegal act must be suppressed.  The Court ratiocinated that the search for data in cellular phones was unreasonable because it was not necessary for the protection of the law enforcers during the arrest.  They should have first secured a search warrant.

In the more recent case of Carpenters, the law enforcers secured location data from cellular companies in order to track the location of the accused during the series of the robbery in 2010.  Because of the resulting unreasonable invasion of privacy of such request, Justice Roberts, again speaking for the Supreme Court, pronounced the necessity of a warrant.  The request for cellular location of the accused based on mere reasonable belief was intrusive as this would reveal the person’s private affairs, even when unnecessary to the crime being investigated.  By stating that a warrant was required, Justice Roberts elevated the prerequisite for the search to a proof of probable cause. A cursory definition of probable cause is the amount of evidence that a reasonable man would believe that the accused probably committed the crime.  Justice Roberts, however was quick to limit his decision by declaring exceptions such as bomb threats, child abductions and the need to pursue a fleeing suspect. He also emphatically said “…a warrant is required in the rare case where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party.”

So many quotable quotes from said decisions can be found in order to protect our privacy which is now slowly eroding.  I made a quick Google search for similar cases in the Philippines regarding cellular phone data investigation, but my limited research yielded none. I am sure our own Supreme Court will have equally erudite pronouncements.   As of the moment, these US cases remain merely persuasive in effect in our jurisdiction.

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