ACLU complains of Michigan State police scanning iPhones during routine traffic stops

“Are cops allowed to snoop through your cellphone during an ordinary traffic stop? According to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) letter to the director of the Michigan State Police on April 13, that department has several forensic cellphone analyzers deployed in the field,” Glenn Derene reports for Popular Mechanics.

“Forensic analyzers are routinely used in police investigations to recover data from computers and other digital devices,” Derene reports. “Lately, cellphones have become valuable sources of evidence for police, since one phone can include almost all of an individual’s private communications (SMS, recently dialed numbers, email, Facebook and Twitter posts) as well as location data from the device’s GPS unit. The device used by the Michigan State Police is a portable forensic system called the Cellebrite UFED that can suck data from a variety of devices, including… Apple iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad.”

MacDailyNews Note: According to Cellebrite’s website, their system can scan over 3,000 handset models, with monthly software updates for newly released devices prior to carrier launch. The system includes more than 85 data cables for connecting 95% of all handset models worldwide. Cellebrite has exclusive carrier agreements and works directly with cellular phone manufacturers to receive pre-production handsets prior to retail launch. Cellebrite’s system claims complete extraction of mobile phone data – Contacts, SMS Messages, photos, videos, call logs (dialed, received, missed), ESN/IMEI, audio files, and deleted SMS/Call History from the SIM/USIM.

Derene reports, “This type of forensic device is nothing new, but the ACLU’s concern is that the UFED mobile units might have been used in routine traffic stops—which, the ACLU contends, would violate the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure. [Florida State University’s Fourth Amendment expert Wayne Logan] told us that there is currently disagreement in the courts about whether cellphones, and smartphones in particular, can be searched after a person is arrested. ‘One way of looking at it is that phones are just like any other container. Let’s say I’m stopped for speeding and the police find cocaine, and then I’m arrested for cocaine possession; the police could search my car. They could also search any duffel bags that were in my car, and let’s say that I had a box of notecards—they could search that. If [an officer] can search that container of notecards, the question becomes: Can he also search my iPhone, which also contains note cards of a sort? But the other argument is that it differs completely in kind, since the type of information on the phone is so different.'”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Can o’ worms.


  1. His analogy is a bit extreme.

    I think the real question is not if they can search your iphone after finding a bunch of coke i your car, if you have enough quantity the DEA will be taking your phone regardless.

    What if you are stopped for a typical traffic violation and they ask to search your car and you say yes.

    Does that include your cellphone?

    1. It might if you are in when authorizing it. They still have to have probable cause to search your vehicle in the first place. Seeing a duffle bag is not probable cause. Also. If the phone is in your pocket, and you are outside of your car, AND they ask to search your car, then no, the phone would not be included, unless they find something and then search you… As the said, Can O’ Worms

          1. In my case, I was pulled over for having “no license plate light”, asked if I had been drinking (which I had not), then was asked if my car could be searched. I asked what the probable cause was, and the officer stated suspicion of drugs. When I said no, he told me that he’d just call a canine unit in to conduct the search. I then requested that a supervisor be brought out to the scene before any search could take place. When the officer got belligerent with me, I mentioned that my father is a district court judge, gave the officer his name, and to please comply with my request as rightfully dictated by state law. After the typical “you think because your dad’s a judge…” crap, my request was then carried out, and I called my dad while we waited. Once the supervisor arrived, my father wanted to speak to him, but he refused. Therefore, I threatened a harassment legal suit against the officer and the supervisor, and that was enough to get them to back off. I think the camera in the officer’s patrol car played a part in getting them to back off as well.

            It might take good physical condition and training to be an officer, but in some cases, it doesn’t necessarily take brains, especially when confronted with a citizen who knows his rights by law…

    2. I have to go with the “container” way of looking at it, if the cops have probable cause or you give permission, then I don’t see what makes any device on your person or in your possession exempt from search any more than a duffle bag would be.

      But at a traffic stop you shouldn’t be subject to any search without probable cause or giving permission, and you don’t have to give permission.

      Just remember, if a cop asks to search or “take a look in” your car or house or pockets, that means they don’t have probable cause, or they wouldn’t bother asking, and you CAN say NO, but if you say yes they can search EVERYTHING.

      Just say No!

  2. I seldom agree with the ACLU but this is a no-brainer.

    For a routine traffic stop, police have no legal right to search you for anything without reasonable suspicion.

    And if a cop goes bad and makes that crap up, throw his ass in jail. Other than that, I always give them the benefit of the doubt.

    1. The ACLU is the most American of institutions. When nobody else will stand by you they will defend your rights- even when it is unpopular to do so. The whole thing is based upon the value of the universality of our basic rights before the law and the government. When the rights of one are diminished- all of our rights are diminished.

      1. I disagree. They take their viewpoints to an extreme.

        They would not dare stand by me if I wanted to celebrate Christmas on the town square.

        They repeatedly stand against my Freedom to Assemble and Freedom of Religion when it suits their agenda.

        I do agree that they will take a stand, unpopular or not, and sometimes rightfully so, but they are NOT the last bastion of hope for a Republic, just one of the cogs.

    2. I agree with progressiveagentprovocateur. The ACLU gets vilified by groups being called communist or whatever negative sounding label their pea brains come up with at the time. They file lawsuits that are unpopular with people who have an agenda when the reality is, they will defend anyone against what they believe is unlawful application of laws.

      Sometimes thats unpopular with people depending on their point of view. They seem like they are fairy neutral when it comes to the cases they take.

      Someday all the people who bash them will be saying ‘why didn’t someone do something’ when it becomes a full-blown police state. More people should support the ACLU because they are that someone.

    3. I never agree with the ACLU.
      To a point they do have an argument, but…
      In many states driving while texting or holding a cell phone is illegal.
      So the cops may be seeing if you were on the phone at the time of you swerving or failing to stop or speeding etc. (granted I did not read the whole article yet)

      If the cops ask to search my car, answer is no. Get a warrant.
      Search my phone? I’ll give you the wrong password intentionally to wipe it. If I have no choice anyway.

      May not agree with the “law” in mich, but they can. I see the ACLU’s point, but also the cops.

      As mdn put it, can o worms indeed.

      1. Since you *never* agree with the ACLU, it is safe to assume that most of your comments are of little interest to me. “Never” is a strong sign of someone who not interested in reasoned discourse.

  3. The simple fact is that there is no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop. The Supreme Court of the US has repeatedly held that stopping or roadblocking without probable cause constitutes illegal seizure- period. This includes roadblocks for DUI, seatbelt, insurance, etc.
    The states keep trying to make a run between the letters of the law and the SCOTUS keeps knocking it down.
    If you are stopped or roadblocked you have a right to know for what reason, and unless you are in violation of some law or the cops are sealing off roads for a fugitive or something similar, they have NO RIGHT to question, search or stop your car.
    The SCOTUS has held that DUI checkpoints and such must be voluntary and they must allow drivers to leave without penalty unless they have a definite probable cause which cannot be your choice not to participate.
    It pisses the cops off, but this is the law. How do I know? I put an end to such bullshit in my community after hitting 5 roadblocks in one night of call at my hospital. I contacted he Governor’s office and sent along PDF’s of all the Supreme Court opinions on this matter. It is settled law. Know your rights. You need not fear the Doughnut Patrol.

    1. I’m a retired cop and I totally agree with what pap states here. Road blocks are merely fishing expeditions where no probably cause exists. An officer must be able to articulate what probably cause exists for a stop.

      1. Thank you for your service to your community. I wish more officers were as lucid and intelligent as what you’ve articulated here. Sadly it seems the 97% give the other 3% a bad name.

    2. Thanks for the response, I don’t suppose you can link the PDFs of these court cases? I’d very much like to bring this up knowledgeably if I ever run into a checkpoint.

    3. “There is no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop” Please add “in the US, in my opinion”.

      There IS such a thing as a routine traffic stop where I live and probably in a hundred other countries. And my country is way, way more free than the US is.

      Furthermore, I’m pretty familiar with US law myself, and I’m not sure I agree with some of the things you say about US law. Please cite sources.

  4. I live in Michigan, and if I’m ever stopped by the Staties, I’m putting my iPhone in the glovebox or in my pocket before the Trooper gets to the car. My thinking is, if they don’t see the iPhone, there shouldn’t be any reason to ask for it.

    BTW – there are laws in Michigan against texting and driving. If they pulled someone over for texting, do they have a right to ask to see the phone?

  5. I wonder if the basic idea is to see if people are texting/emailing while driving. Not sure about all states, but it’s illegal in mine (Mass). I would expect the cop is allowed to check to see if the person texted prior to say an accident or traffic violation. What else they can check for (persona data), is another matter.

    1. … you over for texting while driving, then they HAVE probable cause to specifically search your phone. Of, course, if that is their claim and they discover no evidence of ANY recent use or ANY texting, you have probable cause to file a complaint against them. A CRIMINAL complaint.

  6. I always wonder why conservatives — who are the ones most concerned about the powers of government — are generally opposed to the actions of the ACLU. No other organization in the country is dedicated to preserving our individual liberties. I’ve been a “card carrying” member for years, and am proud to support them, even when I oppose the viewpoints of those they defend…

    1. This has never made sees to me either. The one organization that at least attempts to keep Big Government out of your personal life and the right hates them. I think there’s a myth that they protect the guilty more than the innocent, and that’s because if the police are coming after you you must have done something wrong, and if you’re innocent you don’t have anything to worry about.
      This little fantasy is laughably naive. The police and the DA are not always interested in catching ‘the right person’. They’re interested in a conviction from whatever they can come up with. If they have evidence they can use against you, THEY WILL. They tell you so in miranda, and they’re not kidding. You’d be amazed what they can find and how they can spin it to implicate you.
      If they can search your phone, which contains more information that even you probably realize, then there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll find something to help nail you if they really want to.
      So no, you don’t have to give them your phone, and you don’t actually have to tell them anything but “Lawyer” and they can’t make you do anything until you talk to one.

      1. All the regular botching about the ACLU I’ve ever seen from the right is based on the fact that the ACLU attempts to, and is seemingly the only one concerned with, the separation of church and state. The US has more people in jail per capita than some police states. It’s time the ACLU got 50 billion and GE gets cut loose.

        1. “is seemingly the only one concerned with, the separation of church and state.”

          Bingo. That is a large part of their agenda, is NOT spelled out in the Constitution, is NOT a major threat to Civil Liberties, and is punitive to a majority in some areas.

  7. I think in Canada they need a warrant and generally protection of civil liberties is a cornerstone of democracy .My problem is that as a bicycle commuter , I see an awful lot of people either talking or texting on their phone while driving which is both very dangerous and illegal here . If observed i think this should constitute probable cause to examine the device .

  8. Interesting … Our company (located in Michigan) just had a MI State Trooper in to speak on Safe Driving. One of the topics he covered was Texting and Driving. He stated that in Jackson County, MI that over the last year or so there were only 5 Tickets issued for texting while driving.
    One reason he cited was that a police officer was not allowed to take your phone during a traffic stop. An officer can request to see your phone, but you can refuse to relinquish it. it may be a different thing after an arrest.
    Can you do a MobileMe wipe from the phone, itself?

    Thanks ACLU!

    1. EPIC, EFF, ACLU and others are doing good work every day on issues like this. Anyone can join or support these organizations, sign petitions they sponsor, or send an e-mail thanking them for the good work they do.
      BTW-Woz was a founder of either EPICor EFF.

  9. Who cares. As my mother used to say: “If you weren’t doing anything wrong in the first place, you shouldn’t have to worry.”

    Why have all this great technology able to make law enforcement’s job more accurate and less guess-work if you aren’t going to let them use it?

    If I was accused of something and I knew I was innocent, I’d suggest they take the phone and search it before they even asked for it—nothing to hide. I’d be happy the phone would provide concrete proof I was telling the truth and therefore innocent. Go find the real criminal please, and let me go on my way.

    1. What part of the following quote didn’t you understand?

      “The police and the DA are not always interested in catching ‘the right person’. They’re interested in a conviction from whatever they can come up with. If they have evidence they can use against you, THEY WILL. They tell you so in miranda, and they’re not kidding. You’d be amazed what they can find and how they can spin it to implicate you. If they can search your phone, which contains more information that even you probably realize, then there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll find something to help nail you if they really want to.”

    2. Utter bullshit. Pull your head out of the sand.

      A choice quote: “Of the 124 exonerations of death row inmates in America from 1973 to 2007 indicated that 80, or about two-thirds, of their so-called wrongful convictions resulted not from good-faith mistakes or errors but from intentional, willful, malicious prosecutions by criminal justice personnel.”

      There was another opinion piece I wanted to post, written by an actual victim of such malicious prosecution, but couldn’t find it after a quick search. Briefly, prosecutors had evidence that clearly backed up his claim he wasn’t at the murder victim’s home. They hid this from the defence, and for good measure pinned two other, completely unrelated murders on him, just so they could say they’d “solved” them, and he was convicted and put on death row. Only some determined digging by his defence team uncovered this deception before they executed an innocent person.

      There’s the original criminal(s) in that story, the murderer(s), but the more heinous criminals, those under colour of authority (police, prosecution, AG) are still at their jobs, no punishment to them for conspiring to kill an innocent man.

      1. Addendum: I know there’s a long stretch between traffic violations and capital crimes; but the point is if the prosecution is willing to lie and twist evidence to support their side in a case that will result in execution, do you think they’ll think twice about fabricating a charge from data they copy from your phone?

        And what if one of your buddies left some of his stash of whatever in your car, and you never knew that side of him, and you let them search your car? You did nothing wrong, hell you had no clue, but you’re still going to get nailed with possession.

        1. It wouldn’t take much. All someone has to do is send you a text that says “The plan to assassinate the president has been initiated.” It doesn’t matter who. It doesn’t matter why. All they have to do is find something that they can hook on to and you’re pretty much at their mercy. Sure, you may not be guilty of anything in the end, but if that makes you think you ‘have nothing to worry about’, you’re dreaming. They could easily drag you through the court system to scare you into pleading it to a lower charge. And rather than take the risk of fighting it you might have to. And you’ll them be stuck with that conviction, court costs, and a river of stress and anguish to paddle up for the next few moths or years.

          My answer to “I haven’t done anything wrong.” is…
          “Yes you have, the police just haven’t told you what it was yet.”

    3. “If you weren’t doing anything wrong in the first place, you shouldn’t have to worry.”

      Unmitigated horse crap. There are a thousand things millions of people do everyday that are entirely legal and yet if made public, could cost you your reputation, your job, and your family. Only a slave to authority buys that “nothing to hide” crap.

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