AUGUSTA — Maine law enforcement agencies said Wednesday that a Supreme Court decision restricting their ability to search cellphones won’t much affect how they do their jobs.

The nation’s high court ruled unanimously that in most cases, police can’t search the cellphones of people they arrest without getting search warrants.

It’s a ruling that was spurred by civil libertarians who argue that cellphones have become powerful computers, chock full of sensitive information. The federal government and the state of California defended the searches, saying cellphones shouldn’t be treated differently than other evidence.

But reactions from some in Maine’s law enforcement community were muted on Wednesday, with state, county and local agencies saying their common practice has long been to get warrants before searching phones.

William Stokes, Maine’s top homicide prosecutor and chief of the Maine attorney general’s criminal division, said that has been his office’s preferred stance for years, though in isolated drug cases, state investigators would search phones that turned up during arrests.

But after an early federal circuit court decision last year in one of the cases finally resolved by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, he said he told investigators to get warrants.

“It just didn’t strike me as being worth the risk to be relying upon a warrant exception when you can just get a warrant and search the phone,” Stokes said.

The court decision also won’t change much at the Maine State Police. Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland said while some people who get arrested will voluntarily turn over cellphones to be searched, the agency has sought court orders or warrants before searching phones in major cases.

Officials at the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and the Augusta and Waterville police departments said they have also gotten cellphone warrants for years.

Privacy advocates say laws shielding cellphone data are needed because smartphones have become increasingly powerful devices, holding emails, text messages, location information, pictures and Internet browsing history.

Maine has recently been a national leader on the issue, enacting two laws that required police to get search warrants before gathering location data, text messages and voicemails from cellphones except in emergency situations. Montana passed a similar location bill just before Maine last year.

Stokes’ office and the Maine State Police opposed those changes, which were lobbied for by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

Assistant Maine Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a criminal defense attorney who sponsored the cellphone privacy bills last year, cheered the court decision on Wednesday, saying police shouldn’t be allowed to “snoop around in our records unless there is a darn good reason.”

“Just like we don’t allow law enforcement to search people’s homes without a warrant, the same principle should apply to their most private communications,” he said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme


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