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Cell privacy at heart of prosecution in Peninsula case

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Information stored on cell phones may not be protected under privacy rights, but the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco is hoping to protect information stored on the portable devices.

Karen Guidotti, a San Mateo County assistant district attorney, said her office is waiting for a ruling from the California Supreme Court on whether information stored on a cell phone needs a search warrant before being looked at by authorities.

“We need some guidance,” Guidotti said. “Not only for what our officers do, but we need to know what to do in these cases.”

Because of the uncertainty of the law, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is seeking to exclude evidence found on Christian Taylor’s iPhone after he was arrested for commercial burglary, attempted grand theft and unauthorized use of another’s identification in Daly City. Taylor was arrested Nov. 3.

According to the foundation, Daly City police searched Taylor’s cell phone and found more information on it than expected. After the initial search, police obtained a warrant for the information.

“EFF has urged the court to suppress evidence gathered by police from the suspect’s phone during the warrantless search, including contacts, called phone numbers, e-mails, text messages, Internet search history and photos,” according to the foundation’s Web site. “EFF has also asked the judge to quash the warrant that was eventually issued in part based on the information illegally accessed on the phone.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation acknowledges criminal suspects often have detailed information on their cell phones that may help an investigation, but questioned the ability of police to search anyone’s cell phone at anytime.

“Then everyone’s privacy is at risk,” the foundation states.

Guidotti said the ruling from the Supreme Court — which is expected this month — could determine the ruling in Taylor’s case.

“It should be interesting,” she said. “It’s something we need finality on. It’s not an ‘occasionally’ instance — this is happening frequently.”

Guidotti said a ruling at the state Supreme Court level could answer many questions about electronics that are increasingly being used for record keeping.

“People carry so much information around in their electronic devices now, it’s become equivalent of a planner,” she said. “It can be a wealth of information.”

The request from the Electronic Frontier Foundation is expected in San Mateo County Court on Thursday.

akoskey@sfexaminer.com