Montana Supreme Court rules officer unlawfully searched cellphone in child pornography case

Montana’s Supreme Court issued a ruling last week that imposes stricter limits on the information law enforcement can access when conducting searches on digital devices, marking a major victory for privacy advocates. digital.

At the center of the case is Bradley Mefford, of Butte, who was arrested in 2016 for child pornography. Mefford, who was breaking his curfew at the time, gave his parole officer, Jake Miller, permission to read a Facebook conversation between him and his daughter to prove he was breaking his curfew for him. talk.

But instead of just reading the conversation, the officer continued to search other areas of his phone, raising concerns about fair play for law enforcement when searching digital landscapes, which can contain a large amount of personal information, from bank statements to photographs.

The court quashed the charges against Mefford, ruling the search was unlawful because it “was not executed under a valid warrant exception and therefore was not reasonable within the meaning of the Montana and state constitutions.” -United”.

The opinion was written by Judge Beth Baker who compared searching for Mefford’s phone to searching for a physical space.

“It was no more reasonable for Miller to believe he had permission to search for Mefford’s photos to corroborate his daughter’s identity than it would have been for him to search for information in a photo album. in Mefford’s room or a rolodex on Mefford’s desk. regarding Mefford’s daughter,” Baker wrote.

The ACLU of Montana, which filed a friend of the court brief pleading on behalf of Mefford, applauded the decision in a press release.

“Today, the Supreme Court of Montana made it clear that we have a fundamental right to cell phone privacy,” said Alex Rate, chief legal officer for the ACLU of Montana, in the statement. “And we are encouraged to see the Court agree that the police should not be able to exploit someone’s consent to search for specific information on their mobile phone for the limited purpose of searching for anything or everything about device for any purpose.”

In its filing, the ACLU of Montana argued that courts must interpret state and federal constitutions to prevent police from indiscriminately rummaging through private and sensitive information on electronic devices.

“We live in a reality where each of us carries our entire life in the palm of our hand,” said Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity adviser with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “This ruling is an important step in ensuring that there are genuine constitutional limits to searches of our digital information.”

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