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Police don't need warrants to search cellphones, Supreme Court of Canada rules

The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa is pictured on Oct. 7, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – A divided Supreme Court of Canada says the police can conduct a limited search of suspect’s cellphone when they are arrested without getting a search warrant, but they must follow strict rules.

In its precedent-setting, 4-3 ruling, the country’s top court says the search must be directly related to the circumstances of a person’s arrest and the police must keep detailed records of the search.

Three dissenting justices said the police must get a search warrant in all cases except in rare instances where there is a danger to the public or the police, or if evidence could be destroyed.

It is the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on cellphone privacy, an issue that has spawned a series of divergent lower court rulings.

The high court dismissed the appeal of the 2009 armed robbery conviction of Kevin Fearon, who argued unsuccessfully that police violated his rights when they searched his cellphone without a warrant after he’d robbed a jewelry kiosk.

The court agreed that the police had in fact breached Fearon’s charter rights, but the evidence should not be excluded.