New search warrant generator standardizes cell phone searches to ensure privacy and improve criminal investigations

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution safeguards against unreasonable searches. It mandates that search warrants must be based on probable cause and must specifically describe the items to be seized.

However, applying this constitutional requirement to cell phones is a significant challenge. Cell phones are repositories of vast amounts of detailed information about a person’s daily activities and lifestyle. Determining which pieces of data are relevant to an investigation becomes a critical issue.

Additionally, questions arise about the time frame covered by a search warrant. For instance, can a warrant be issued to access data from a phone dating back two years when the crime occurred today? And since text messages and photos are ubiquitous on cell phones, questions arise about whether there is probable cause to access such personal content.

Also complicating matters is the inconsistency of rulings across jurisdictions. What may be permissible in one state, like Indiana, might not be allowed in another, such as California. Even within a local jurisdiction like St. Joseph County, variations in judicial review can lead to differences in warrant approval and execution, including the editing or crossing out of items on the warrant.

To tackle these issues, the Center for Research Computing (CRC) and the Cybercrimes Investigations, Research, and Education (CIRE) initiated a project to standardize cell phone search warrants.

Working collaboratively, local judges, magistrates, and CIRE personnel engaged in discussions about search warrant requirements. CIRE took into account current case law and identified weaknesses that had led to the suppression of evidence in the past.

Following these discussions, CIRE developed a standardized template for cell phone search warrants. Programmers with the CRC used this template to create an online search warrant generator. The tool's input fields guide officers through the process. The tool ensures that the office provides the necessary information for a warrant that aligns with the Fourth Amendment, protects the phone owner’s privacy, and supplies law enforcement only with relevant evidence related to the investigation. The generator enables officers to limit the scope of a warrant while establishing probable cause specifically for information pertinent to the case.

Overall, the tool reduces the risk of electronic evidence suppression while also safeguarding each individual’s right to privacy.

To refine the search warrant generator, CIRE conducted a phased implementation. Initially, it provided the warrant generator to the South Bend Police Department. Based on their feedback, CIRE made improvements to enhance the user experience. Subsequently, CIRE rolled out the generator to all law enforcement agencies in St. Joseph County and then to eight counties in Northern Indiana.

Finally, the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council (IPAC) distributed the generator statewide, making it the standard method for producing Fourth Amendment-compliant cell phone search warrants for all IPAC High Tech Crimes Units in the State of Indiana.

“The search warrant generator represents a substantial step forward in standardizing cell phone search warrants throughout the state,” says CIRE Director Mitch Kajzer. “The uniformity achieved ensures the protection of privacy rights while simultaneously equipping law enforcement with relevant evidence necessary for their investigations.”