Kearney ... says obtaining warrants does not affect police officers’ safety.
Kearney ... says obtaining warrants does not affect police officers' safety.

York County police departments won't be affected by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that states officers generally can't search cellphones of people they arrest without a warrant.

"This is not going to change the way we do business in this county," York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said. "We've been doing it right for a very long time."

Recently the nation's highest court said cellphones are powerful devices unlike anything else police may find on someone they arrest, The Associated Press reported. Because the phones contain so much information, police must get a warrant before looking through them, Chief Justice John Roberts said.

The Supreme Court previously had ruled police could empty a suspect's pockets and examine whatever they find to ensure officers' safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.

In defending cellphone searches, the Obama administration and the state of California argued cellphones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find.

'Troves' of information: But the defendants in these cases, backed by civil libertarians, librarians and news media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, are increasingly powerful computers that can store troves of sensitive personal information, according to AP.

"It was an unsettled area of the law before (the ruling)," Kearney said — but not here.


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The district attorney said the standard practice in York County has been for police to first obtain a warrant.

"That was the practice when I came in (to office)," he said.

Kearney said he reviewed the policy after taking office. He agreed with it and chose not to change it.

"To me it's a natural follow-through — you get a warrant," he said. "It's nice to know we're ahead of the curve."

Officer safety: Kearney said he doesn't view the new requirement as affecting officer safety, as others have argued.

"If the whole purpose of this is officer safety, you have to be reasonable about what's safe," he said. "You can slip a razor blade into a wallet. But it's pretty hard to do that with a cellphone."

The high court's ruling does not affect police officers' ability to seize cellphones of those they arrest, Kearney said.

"You can seize it if you believe it may contain evidence," he said, then simply obtain a warrant later to look at the phone's contents.

Kearney said obtaining such a search warrant would not be a long or difficult process for police.

Exception: There is an exception to the ruling, according to Kearney, for emergencies that rise to the level of "exigent circumstances."

Examples would include capturing a kidnapper whose victim is still missing, or arresting a bomber who has planted an explosive in an unknown location, he said.

Police could use suspects' cellphones to try to save a kidnapping victim or find a bomb in time to prevent it from detonating.

"If you can show exigent circumstances that can justify it, then it's permissible," he said.

Database: Kearney said he still plans to develop a multi-county regional center that could help police investigators link crimes that otherwise might not appear to be related by analyzing information collected from cellphones, firearms and other records.

"For example ... once you get a warrant and examine what's in the phone, you might be able to track down where people are getting drugs," he said.

"That type of intelligence can be important and lead to prosecutions," Kearney said. "What I care about is patterns. And that's what intelligence is all about — picking out patterns and paying attention to those patterns."

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com.