State Police Search Mobile Phones During Traffic Stops

Thanks to our friend and client Jamie who pointed out this warning –

Michigan State Police have been using data extraction devices to collect information from the cell phones of motorists detained for minor traffic infractions.

The mobile forensics units made by CelleBrite have the ability to download the data stored on more than 3000 models of cell phone, and are capable of defeating password protection.

“Complete extraction of existing, hidden, and deleted phone data, including call history, text messages, contacts, images, and geotags. The Physical Analyzer allows visualization of both existing and deleted locations on Google Earth. In addition, location information from GPS devices and image geotags can be mapped on Google Maps,” a CelleBrite brochure claims.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) first learned of the Michigan State Police program back in 2008, and filed official requests for documentation on the standards for using the CelleBrite devices.

The Michigan State Police replied they would be happy to release the information provided the ACLU pays a fee of more than $544,000 for the data, an amount the ACLU finds to be unreasonable.

“Law enforcement officers are known, on occasion, to encourage citizens to cooperate if they have nothing to hide. No less should be expected of law enforcement, and the Michigan State Police should be willing to assuage concerns that these powerful extraction devices are being used illegally by honoring our requests for cooperation and disclosure,” ACLU staff attorney Mark P. Fancher wrote.

The concern is over whether the Michigan State Police are using the devices to bypass citizen’s Fourth Amendment right to not be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure.

A minor traffic infraction may not present the probable cause needed to extract all of the data contained on a violator’s mobile phone.

The ACLU wants to see documentation on how and why the device is employed during traffic stops to determine if the authorities are overstepping their legal authority to seize the information.

“With certain exceptions that do not apply here, a search cannot occur without a warrant in which a judicial officer determines that there is probable cause to believe that the search will yield evidence of criminal activity. A device that allows immediate, surreptitious intrusion into private data creates enormous risks that troopers will ignore these requirements to the detriment of the constitutional rights of persons whose cell phones are searched,” Fancher wrote.

The courts have been fairly liberal in their treatment of electronic search and seizure cases where the searches take place at the national border, but whether or not that liberal interpretation will carry over to traffic stops is still in question.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in early April that electronic devices such as laptops and cell phones may be seized at the border, confiscated, searched, and even transported to a separate facility for forensic examination – all without need for a warrant demonstrating of due cause.


The statement from the Michigan State Police is as follows:

Contact:  Tiffany Brown, Public Affairs Section, (517) 241-0970
Agency: State Police

LANSING. Recent news coverage prompted by a press release issued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has brought speculation and caused inaccurate information to be reported about data extraction devices (DEDs) owned by the Michigan State Police (MSP).

To be clear, there have not been any allegations of wrongdoing by the MSP in the use of DEDs.

The MSP only uses the DEDs if a search warrant is obtained or if the person possessing the mobile device gives consent. The department*s internal directive is that the DEDs only be used by MSP specialty teams on criminal cases, such as crimes against children.

The DEDs are not being used to extract citizens’ personal information during routine traffic stops.

The MSP does not possess DEDs that can extract data without the officer actually possessing the owner’s mobile device. The DEDs utilized by the MSP cannot obtain information from mobile devices without the mobile device owner knowing.

Data extraction devices are commercially available and are routinely utilized by mobile communication device vendors nationwide to transmit data from one device to another when customers upgrade their mobile devices.

These DEDs have been adapted for law enforcement use due to the ever-increasing use of mobile communication devices by criminals to further their criminal activity and have become a powerful investigative tool used to obtain critical information from criminals.

Since 2008, the MSP has worked with the ACLU to narrow the focus, and thus reducing the cost, of its initial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. To date, the MSP has fulfilled at least one ACLU FOIA request on this issue and has several far-lower cost requests awaiting payment to begin processing. The MSP provides information in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act. As with any request, there may be a processing fee to search for, retrieve, review, examine, and separate exempt material, if any.

The implication by the ACLU that the MSP uses these devices “quietly to bypass Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches” is untrue, and this divisive tactic unjustly harms police and community relations.


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