State High Court Upholds Warrantless Searches Of Text Messages

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) – The California Supreme Court ruled in San Francisco Monday that police are entitled to search text messages on the cell phones of arrestees without obtaining a warrant.

The court, ruling in a Ventura County case, said by a 5-2 vote that warrantless searches of text messages are permitted under precedents set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The panel upheld the drug conviction of Gregory Diaz, who was arrested for aiding in selling Ecstasy to a police informant during an undercover sting operation. 

Sheriff’s deputies seized Diaz’s cell phone along with six tabs of Ecstasy. One and one-half hours later, a detective, who did not have a search warrant, looked in the text message folder of the phone and discovered a coded message that referred to Ecstasy sales.

When confronted with the message, Diaz admitted to participating in the deal. He later pleaded guilty to transporting a controlled substance and was sentenced to probation, but he reserved his right to appeal the use of evidence from the text message.

The state high court majority said the search was permitted under U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have allowed warrantless searches of personal property such as clothing or a cigarette package that are “immediately associated” with a person who is arrested.

Justice Ming Chin wrote that Diaz’s cell phone was personal property, similar to clothing, that was immediately associated with him and the search was therefore valid.

Justice Kathryn Werdegar argued in a dissent that the search of text messages was “highly intrusive” and could have been carried out later after police obtained a warrant.

She said the U.S. Supreme Court rulings should be reevaluated in light of developments in modern technology.

But Chin, writing for the majority, said that any reevaluation “must be undertaken by the high court itself.”

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News contributed to this report.)

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