San Francisco Federal Appeals Court Grant Police Access to Civilian Cell Phones but Not Answer Calls

Rabin Nabizadeh
September 12, 2013

Procedures involving search and seizure can be complicated. For example, when a person is stopped on suspicion of a DUI or any other potential violation, they have the right to refuse police to search their vehicle, as it is considered an extension of their home.  But what happens when law enforcement officials ask to search your cellular phone?  A San Francisco federal appeals court decision has recently made what is acceptable and unacceptable in such a case.

A driver (name withheld for privacy) was driving near the Mexican border in San Diego County when a police officer stopped him, citing “suspicious behavior.”  He gave the officer permission to take a look at one of the 3 cell phones in the vehicle he was driving, but then the officer took things a little too far.  Believing that he was part of a group whose aim is to smuggle illegal immigrants into the country, the police officer proceeded to answer the driver’s phone when it rang, pretend to be driver, and spoke to several people on the phone.

The federal appeals court has deemed that this kind of behavior is inappropriate and cannot be considered part of a normal search of a cellular phone, which does include looking at incoming and outgoing text messages.  In this case, the several arrests that occurred due to the evidence police discovered by impersonating the driver must now be reevaluated and, though there is a legal precedent for such a search when a warrant has been issued, on a routine stop with no warrant, police cannot answer calls or impersonate individuals in order to gather evidence against them.

 

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