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Supreme Court’s cell phone decision in line with New Hampshire practice

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week restricting warrantless cell phone searches has been branded a landmark ruling in the digital age, one that will have significant impacts for police departments across the country.

In its decision, the court observed that cell phones today are effectively tiny computers containing a wealth of private information, and that, as such, officers need warrants if they want to search those of the people they arrest.

Officers can still search cell phones without a warrant, but only under extreme circumstances or if they have consent from the owner of the device.

Here in New Hampshire, though, that has been the broad practice for some time, according to legal experts and police officials. The state already directs officers to obtain warrants for searches of cell phones and other handheld devices, they said, and a bill awaiting the governor’s signature would cement that into law.

“It shouldn’t have a major impact,” Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said of the court’s ruling. The state law enforcement manual, last issued in 2008, requires warrants for such searches, she said.

Enfield police Chief Richard Crate, a vice president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said officers in his department obtain warrants in all situations unless doing so places a person in physical harm or if they have consent from the owners of the devices.

“From my own agency, someone’s phone is no different than anything else,” Crate said. “We need to get consent or get a warrant.”

Gilles Bissonnette, staff attorney at the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said he also expected no major effects from the ruling, but he applauded it nevertheless as reaffirmation of the state’s current practices.

“We are obviously very pleased with the decision,” Bissonnette said in an email. “We have entered a new world but, as the court recognized, our traditional values still apply and limit the government’s ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives.”

Bissonnette said the bill now on Gov. Maggie Hassan’s desk, House Bill 1533, provides further citizen protections because it also bans information retrieved without a warrant in civil and administrative proceedings, and it gives owners the right to sue if their devices are searched without a warrant – two issues the high court’s ruling did not touch.

Crate said search warrants take on average about two or three hours to obtain, depending on the availability of a judge and on how long it takes to draw up a supporting affidavit.

He said in more severe cases, his officers get a warrant even if they have consent, because it protects them from future liability.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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