Wisconsin Supreme Court Refuses to Limit Warrantless Forensic Searches of Cell Phones

June 29, 2021

The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an opinion in Wisconsin v. Burch finding that cell phone data downloaded with a forensic device can be used in a subsequent, unrelated investigation and trial regardless of whether the data was initially obtained without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment. A police department used a forensic device to download the entire contents of the defendant's phone while investigating a hit-and-run and retained a full copy indefinitely. The sheriff's office later accessed and searched the copy during an unrelated homicide investigation and used the defendant's cell phone data as evidence during his trial. The Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to decide the constitutional question. Instead, the Court found that the evidence should not be excluded because the police "acted by the book" and there was no conduct to deter with exclusion. The Court said that the sheriff's office "ha[d] every reason to think [the downloaded data] was lawfully obtained" and found there was no police misconduct because it is "common police practice to share records with other agencies." Dissenting from this holding, Judge Bradley, along with two other justices of the court, recognized that law enforcement "generally needs a warrant to search the data [cell phones] hold." She added that the exclusionary rule should apply in this case because "excluding evidence obtained by following such an unlawful and widespread policy provides significant societal value by both specifically deterring continued adherence to an unconstitutional practice and more broadly incentivizing police agencies to adopt policies in line with the Fourth Amendment." EPIC, along with the ACLU and EFF, filed an amicus brief in the case that argued that the unchecked use of forensic devices to download, store, and share cell data violated the Fourth Amendment by "enabl[ing] the State to rummage at will among a person's most personal and private information whenever it wanted, for as long as it wanted" without a warrant. EPIC regularly files amicus briefs challenging unlawful access to cell phone data.

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