Supreme Court could decide whether police need warrant to search abandoned cell phones

Should police have to get a warrant to search your cell phone if you abandon it or throw it out?

A Virginia man is urging the Supreme Court to hear his story and decide that police need to get a warrant before searching a cell phone that was left behind.

In 2018, Antonio Futrell left his cell phone at a restaurant in Hampton, Virginia. When he turned back to get it, the restaurant had closed and the security guard wouldn't let him back in.

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Futrell pulled a gun on the security guard and the pair exchanged fire.

Futrell fled, but the restaurant workers found his phone and gave it to the police. The phone was unlocked, and an officer searched the contents without getting a warrant.

Futrell filed a legal challenge arguing that the officer should not have been allowed to look at his phone without a warrant. He argues that he has a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to the contents of his phone.

Cell phones these days contain a digital record of nearly every aspect of a person's life from banking to health to location to past purchases, meaning this case could have wide-reaching consequences.

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"It's a bit of a Pandora's box," says Brandom Boxler, attorney for Antonio Futrell. "Not just the criminal justice system but society at large."

Virginia state courts did not side with Futrell. But now he's asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

Several courts across the country have weighed in on similar questions with many agreeing that warrantless cell phone searches are okay if the phone is abandoned.

"If a person has abandoned the property, they no longer have a reasonable expectation of privacy," says John Davisson from the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Where the problem arises is with something like a cell phone that is not just an ordinary piece of physical property on someone’s person, but really accesses a tremendous amount and contains a tremendous amount of information about the personal life of the person to whom the cell phone belongs."

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The Supreme Court will decide whether to take up the case sometime this fall.