In a recent case in Massachusetts a court ruled that a search warrant issued for a computer (in this case an iPhone) properly included a search for photographs. The search in this case arose out of a shooting on a city street between two men. The police obtained information that the defendant, believed to be one of the two men involved in the shooting, had received threatening telephone calls and texts on his cell phone. As a result, they obtained a search warrant for the cell phone which included “saved and deleted photographs” on the iPhone. The police found incriminating photographs on the cell phone.
The court found that photographs can constitute communications. The defendant admitted this point so the court did not discuss the point. A famous quote says that “apicture is worth a thousand words.” This point is proven every minute as people attach photographs and video to texts and emails. They post pictures and video in social media. Video cameras constantly provide information over the internet. I can’t imagine a good faith argument to dispute the fact that photographs are communicative. Once the argument is made that a photograph can constitute communications then it seems inevitable that a search warrant for communications should include photographs.
Many people think that a search of a cell phone occurs by a police officer manually searching the phone to look for texts, emails, photographs, etc. While this can occur, that is not how the police searched in this case. The police used a Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED) to access the device and to extract the information. A UFED bypasses the password lockout feature of the cellphone and allows a targeted search of the device. It can search all areas of the physical phone as well as all cloud based accounts accessed by the telephone. As the search is targeted the police didn’t receive a copy of all information on the phone and its services but only such data as the UFED found responsive to the targeted search. A properly targeted search prevents the police from browsing the entire phone and obtaining information outside the scope of the search warrant. A UFED search based on permissions granted by a search warrant should be permitted.
Police routinely search cellphones in arrests on serious crimes. There are many restrictions on the ability of police to search phones. If you have been arrested and the police seized your cellphone or computer you should consult a lawyer to analyze the method, scope, and reasons for the search. Failure to act promptly can result in improperly seized evidence used to obtain a conviction.