When police obtain a search warrant, the Fourth Amendment requires that the scope of the search be limited to a particular place and for evidence of the particular crime being investigated. In the modern era, a person’s electronic devices hold vast amounts of data, and a warrant to search a person’s cell phone can dangerously circumvent these constitutional protections by opening up a person’s private life to intrusive snooping by law enforcement. In 2016, police from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department obtained a warrant to search Kristopher Hughes’s cell phone for evidence of drug trafficking. To carry out the search, they downloaded the entire contents of his phone, but did not file charges. Then, months later, they went back to the download and searched the data for evidence of a completely separate criminal act, a robbery.
In July 2020 the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Michigan Supreme Court arguing that the second search violated the Fourth Amendment because the police did not get a new warrant. Without a requirement for the second warrant, we argued, a search of someone’s electronic device will too quickly turn into a fishing expedition, allowing law enforcement to rummage through all the details of a person’s entire life. In December 2020 the Michigan Supreme Court agreed with our position, reversing the rulings of the trial court and the Court of Appeals and establishing a more protective standard for cell phone searches in Michigan.
(People v. Hughes; National ACLU Attorneys Jennifer Granick and Brett Kaufman; ACLU of Michigan Attorneys Dan Korobkin and Bonsitu Kitaba-Gaviglio; co-counsel Stuart Friedman of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan.)