Court Says That Officer's Use Of Abandoned Cell Phone Is OK

After the landmark fight between Apple and the FBI over an encrypted iPhone belonging to somebody linked to the San Bernardino tragedy, it's only logical that any future matters of law concerning personal belongings, especially smartphones, would be approached carefully and judiciously. Thus it went for a recent ruling in a case where a man entered a residence illegally, committed a violent act, then proceeded to flee the scene and abandon a Samsung Galaxy smartphone. While the phone was locked, police were able to use it to call 911. 911 operators received the phone's number and used it to trace it back to its owner, the burglar. When police arrested the man, however, they found evidence of his involvement in a kidnapping, as well.

The man's lawyer argued that evidence gathered using the phone should not be admissible in court because the device's search constituted unreasonable search and seizure, under the terms of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The federal court in charge of the case, however, argued that the phone was abandoned and thus could not have been obtained through search and seizure procedures; this means that no use of the phone could have warranted cries of unreasonable search and seizure, especially since the device was never unlocked and the only personal information obtained was the phone number, easily obtainable through public record, with proper identification. On top of that, the evidence of the kidnapping had very little to do with the phone; under the assumption that proper police work would have eventually led to identifying and arresting the burglar, that evidence would have been found in any case.

The man did plead guilty to the burglary, but entered no such plea for the kidnapping, leaving the case open for now. According to the prosecution, the man was clearly not planning on going back to retrieve his lost Galaxy device, rendering it indisputably abandoned and making it free game for evidence gathering. The judge also pointed out a common-sense concept, that a fugitive, in most cases, will have "no reasonable expectation of privacy" from law enforcement, especially in regards to items that they use and leave behind while making their getaway.

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