Cops claim their cell phones were illegally searched (by other cops)

Technically Incorrect: The Port Authority Police Union is suing the authority after partying rookie cops were allegedly forced to hand over their cell phones. Nine were later fired.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

The Hoboken Bar where the original incident took place. TIGRI/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It's tempting to believe that the authorities treat their own a little differently from the way they treat others.

A new lawsuit, however, might offer pause for a moment's consideration.

In August, new graduates from the Port Authority Police Academy celebrated with a party at a bar in Hoboken, N.J. Some of the newly bestowed cops were allegedly bestowing a little drunken superiority on bouncers and others at the bar.

So much so that the police were called (other police, that is). In November, nine rookies were fired. Three of their superiors were also disciplined.

Now, however, as NJ.com reports, the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association is suing the Port Authority, the force that patrols the bridges and tunnels between New York and New Jersey, and accusing the investigators from the Inspector General's office of having illegally forced the rookie cops to hand over their cell phones.

The Supreme Court made it clear last year, in the case of Riley vs. California, that information on cell phones was private.

In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts: "The fact that technology now allow an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought."

Riley vs. California has already been cited in the case of a police officer who, without a warrant, searched a female DUI suspect's cell phone in Contra Costa County, Calif., and then sent nude images from it to other officers. The officer concerned pleaded no contest and didn't go to jail.

In the Port Authority case, the accusation is that the rookie officers were interviewed individually and thought they were merely witnesses. They were allegedly threatened with being fired from the force if they didn't unlock their phones and unveil their contents.

One of the rookies, Kathleen Howard, was allegedly ordered to open a group texting app.

The president of the police union, Paul Nunziato, insisted that police officers have the same rights as any citizen. He told the New York Times: "We lock people up for a living. If we're conducting a criminal investigation and we have someone's cell phone, if we don't have a warrant, we're not going into that cellphone."

I had rather thought the police protected us all for a living, but still.

I have contacted the Port Authority for its reaction and will update if I hear.

However, the Authority released a statement on Wednesday, reported by NJ.com. It said, in part: "The Port Authority strongly disputes the allegations made by the PBA regarding the Inspector General's investigation into the egregious behavior at this party involving newly sworn PAPD officers and some of their supervisors."

The statement describes the rookies' behavior as "appalling, deeply troubling, and did not meet the high standards that all of our sworn police officers vow to uphold."

This may be true. Surely, though, it doesn't answer the allegation that these rookies might have had rank pulled on them, in order to force them to illegally open their phones.