It’s Legal: Police may seize your phone and impersonate you

Be careful the next time you send personal information in a text message, you might be surprised who’s on the other end.

In November 2009, police in Washington seized an iPhone belonging to Daniel Lee, who was suspected of being a drug dealer. While the phone was in the custody of the police, officers not only received text messages in Lee’s name but arranged a potential drug deal. They went further by texting one of Lee’s contacts and asking if he needed more. He responded that he did, police arrested him as well. The individuals who were arrested through the result of the text messaging argued that police violated their privacy but last month, the Washington Court of Appeals disagreed.

In his decision, Judge Penoyar pointed to a case from 1990 that set a legal precedent, albeit with different technology. In that case, police had seized a suspected drug dealer’s pager and called numbers which appeared on it to arrange phony drug purchases with the dealer’s clients. The court ruled that somebody who sends their phone number to pager can’t expect privacy since there’s no guarantee the pager will be in the hands of its owner. The same reasoning was used with text messaging on an iPhone, Penoyar wrote in his decision.

On his own iPhone, on his own computer, or in the process of electronic transit, Hinton’s communications are shielded by our constitutions. But after their arrival, Hinton’s text messages on Lee’s iPhone were no longer private or deserving of constitutional protection.

If the decision stands, this means it’s completely legal for police to impersonate the owner of a cell phone after seizing it. What are your thoughts on this?

(Photo by William Hook available under a Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike Generic license.)

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