Monday, March 7, 2011

Court Rules That Cell Phone Is a Computer.

An important decision last month about cell phones.  The court signals the broad significance in the first sentence by quoting an Apple founder:  “Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, recently mused: ‘Everything has a computer in it nowadays.’  But is an ordinary cellular phone—used only to place calls and send text messages—a computer?”

In this case, the Eighth Circuit Court of appeals considered a sentence to be imposed on a man convicted of transporting a minor in interstate commerce with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity with her.  He used a Motorola Motorazr to make voice calls and send text messages to the victim.  The Federal sentencing laws call for an enhanced sentence if someone uses a computer to facilitate the offense. 

The court initially rejected an argument that a computer must be connected to the Internet.  The key question, the court suggested, is that separates a computer from an automated typewriter or a calculator.  In this case, the court considered evidence that the cell phone could run software and has a processor that “performs arithmetic, logical, and storage functions when the phone is used to place a call” or send text messages. 

This case involved a simple phone similar to the one pictured here.  It’s the same type of phone I used before getting an iPhone.  I mention this because I am very aware that the capabilities of the phones are light years apart  – so if the Motorazr is a computer, then an iPhone is definitely a computer.  As I have outlined elsewhere, courts have been more reluctant to allow warrantless searches of computers in certain instances, like after an arrest, than they have been to allow warrantless searches of the contents of cell phones. 

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