Ohio Supreme Court Ruled on Cell Phone Searches Years Before SCOTUS


Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court sparked a national conversation on American's privacy rights in the 21st century by ruling that law enforcement officers must obtain warrants in order to search a criminal suspect's cell phone. That ruling stated that cell phones today contain massive amounts of personal data about their owners, and that they are not in the same category as searches of wallets, purses, and other personal property. The Supreme Court ruled by a unanimous 9-0 vote.

Although the decision has made for impressive headlines and quite a bit of water-cooler buzz, it's not the first of its kind. In fact, the Ohio Supreme court issued the same ruling over four years ago, creating the standard in criminal cases across the state. The ruling from December of 2009 – State v. Smith – stated that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure requires law enforcement to obtain warrants prior to searching cell phone data in devices owned by suspects, when the search is not necessary to protect the safety of officers.

A recent interview with Justice Judith Ann Lazinger, who wrote the majority opinion, revealed that although the Ohio case involved an older cell phone that would not be considered a "smart phone" by today's standards, the issue still boils down to individuals' right to privacy. The case involved a man whose phone was searched by police after an arrest. Because the warrantless search was not made to protect officers' safety, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a 4-3 ruling to require warrants for searches of cell phones.

According to Lazinger, even if last month's Supreme Court decision ruled the other way, Ohio law would still take precedent because the state can give citizens more protections than federal courts. From the unanimous decision, however, it's clear that our judicial system recognizes that new technology calls for new precedents, and that despite all changes and innovations, Americans' constitutional rights are always at the core.