Fighting Crime, One Cell Phone at a Time

Criminals should understand breaking the law means losing their privacy.

Using a smart phone.
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The right to privacy is not to be taken lightly. As an American citizen and lifetime law enforcement officer, I respect the reasonable expectation that home and property rights will be honored. However, the Supreme Court of California has ruled that the expectation of privacy does not extend to the cellphone of an individual under arrest. I support the court.

This does not mean the police are taking charge of the laptop in your briefcase or your home computer. As in every case, there must be probable cause. The last thing an officer wants to do is to trample on the rights of those under investigation and risk rendering an investigation moot.

Furthermore, this does not mean that all people under arrest are going to have the contents of their phones scrutinized. However, in cases involving human trafficking, sexual slavery and narcotics, the contents of these devices can prove to be an invaluable and recognized tool for law enforcement. Entire trafficking rings and drug operations can be run with the simple use of an iPhone.

[Read Linda Lye: Keeping Cell Phones Private]

Criminals involved in these treacherous endeavors are aware that their phones may be searched at the discretion of law enforcement officials subsequent to their arrest. The courts wisely understood the real-world scenario of working a criminal case and recognized that the precious time it takes to obtain search warrants in these cases can oftentimes render the information irrelevant.

One can clearly see that the depravity of certain crimes is the driving factor in both the timeliness and the depth of the investigation. Criminals involved in such enterprises obviously have no respect for the law and will go to great lengths to destroy any evidence that might lead to their incarceration. In today’s technologically advanced environment, a criminal can quickly find ways to clear the contents of these mobile devices. We cannot risk losing this critical data while navigating the bureaucracy to gain access to a criminal blueprint the suspect should expect to surrender. The law works.

Prior to becoming the president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, I worked for almost three decades responding to crimes. Every piece of evidence is crucial to solving a case. Cellphone contents can sometimes be the linchpin in bringing down criminal enterprises and saving innocent lives.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

A case in my hometown of San Diego began with the cellphone search of a criminal who realized the police had that option. The information the deputies gleaned was ultimately used in a collaborative effort involving over 200 officers and crossing three states. The interstate investigation of a human trafficking ring led to the rescue of over 30 women – almost half of them under the age of 16. These are young women who could have been your daughter, your niece or your neighbor. Seeking information that could lead to their rescue was the No. 1 priority, and it could be assumed that, had one of these women been someone you cared for, you would have wanted the swiftest action to be taken as well. It could be a costly sacrifice in lives if the police were forced to jump through additional time-consuming hoops before moving forward with certain aspects of their investigations.

We agree that the assurance of privacy is a right for all of our citizens. But for those who choose to disobey our laws, they must understand that their actions could result in the loss of the privacy they enjoyed while perpetrating their crimes.

Ron Cottingham is the president of Peace Officers Research Association of California.