EPIC, ACLU, & EFF Urge Court to Prohibit Wholesale Forensic Cell Phone Searches When Probable Cause is Limited

July 14, 2021

EPIC has filed an amicus brief with the ACLU and EFF in United States v. Morton urging the full Fifth Circuit to prohibit invasive forensic searches of cell phones when law enforcement only has probable cause to search some of the data on the phone. In Morton, police obtained a warrant to search the defendant's cell phone for evidence of an alleged drug crime, but instead conducted a forensic search of the phone's full contents and uncovered evidence of an entirely unrelated crime. A Fifth Circuit panel ultimately found that the search violated the Fourth Amendment because it reached a type of data on the phone that was not likely to contain evidence of the specific crime being investigated. EPIC, ACLU, and EFF applauded the panel's recognition that "the scope of cell phone searches must closely adhere to the probable cause showing, lest authority to search a device for evidence of one crime mutate into authority to search the entirety of the device for evidence of any crime—a prohibited general search." The groups argued that, in an age when "Americans’ dependency on smartphones has, intentionally and inadvertently, resulted in our phones containing vast troves of our personal information, strict limits on searches and seizures are necessary to preserve privacy" and that technological and administrative convenience "is no justification for discarding the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause and particularity requirements." EPIC regularly files amicus briefs challenging unconstitutionally broad cell phone searches, including forensic searches of entire cell phones.

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