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Are Cell Phones 'Instruments of Crime'?

Recent headlines are turning up the pressure on Allegheny County in Pennsylvania due to law enforcement's over-reliance on charging arrestees with possession of an "instrument of crime" just for having a cell phone.

The big controversy centers around sex workers, and how law enforcement in Allegheny County routinely arrest and charge sex workers with both prostitution and possession of an instrument of crime, if the arrestee has a cell phone. And if you're wondering what the big deal is, before sex workers had to worry about a cell phone earning them an extra serious criminal charge, condoms were being considered instruments of crime.

Instrument of Crime and Communication

In general, courts will not consider a cell phone to be a criminal instrument without something more, and when the charges reach the prosecutor's office in Allegheny County, most of the time, cell phone charges are dropped.

However, for instance, a second or "burner" phone, or a phone that is specially set up for criminal purposes, could very well be considered an instrument of crime. Generally, though, just because a person charged with a crime used their cell phone to help arrange the crime, like a drug sale, it doesn't automatically convert the phone into an instrument of crime.

Software Probably Matters

When it comes to the sex workers in Allegheny County, the big issue is safety. Much like condoms, when a sex worker is incentivized not to carry a cell phone, they are putting themselves at a much higher risk of being victimized by an abuser, or worse. And while a cell phone full of contacts and text messages may be good evidence of other crimes, charging possession of a cell phone as a crime in and of itself goes beyond credulity.

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