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Searching Electronic Devices Without a Warrant

OPB | Jan. 31, 2012 9:06 a.m. | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 11:08 p.m.

A federal judge in Eugene has ruled that reviewing information from electronic devices without a warrant is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights. The case, “Schlossberg vs. Solesbee,” arose from an incident where Sgt. Bill Solesbee arrested Josh Schlossberg at an environmental leafleting campaign outside an Umpqua Bank in Eugene. Solesbee confiscated a video camera that Schlossberg used to tape the encounter.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas M. Coffin stated in his decision:

The Fourth Amendment serves to protect an individual’s subjective expectation of privacy if that expectation is reasonable and justifiable.

That law allows an exemption in the case of an arrest. A police officer may search a person under arrest and the area in that person’s immediate control. However, Judge Coffin ruled that electronic devices don’t belong in that exception:

Electronic devices such as plaintiff’s digital camera hold large amounts of private information, entitling them to a higher standard of privacy.

The case is the first in Oregon to deal with the issue of warrantless police search of wireless devices, an issue that has not yet been brought to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Have you ever taken a camera or phone to a protest? Did you think about whether that device would be subject to search if you were arrested? What questions do you have about the decision to exempt electronic devices from warrantless searches?

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