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SCOTUS: Warrant Generally Required Before Search of Cell Phone


Let’s face it, cell phones are everywhere. Whether walking down a crowded street or relaxing on a remote beach, you will probably encounter someone on a cell phone.  Cell phones, however, are not only used for communication.  Many of our cell phones have internet and e-mail capabilities, photograph and video galleries, GPS, and calendars that contain important dates and events.  Simply stated, cell phones can be used for countless purposes.  Given the virtually unlimited use and large storage capacity of modern cell phones, what privacy protections apply to our cell phones?

On June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a landmark ruling in the case of Riley v. California.  In a unanimous decision, the Court held that a warrant is generally required before law enforcement officers may search a cell phone, even when the cell phone is seized incident to a lawful arrest.

This decision will have far-reaching implications as technology continues to develop and society shifts into a digital world.  The Court’s ruling will also affect the way criminal investigations are undertaken by law enforcement officers.

In Riley v. California, the Court was faced with the decision of how to apply the historical protections of the Fourth Amendment to modern technology.  The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their per­sons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasona­ble searches and seizures...”  The keyword, for Fourth Amendment purposes, is reasonableness.  Over the years, the case law has consistently recognized that “where a search is undertaken by law en­forcement officials to discover evidence of criminal wrong­doing...reasonableness generally requires the obtaining of a judicial warrant.”  The warrant requirement is “an important working part of our machinery of government.”

Warrantless searches have been justified to ensure officer safety – namely to allow officers to discovery hidden weapons.  The Government argued that a warrantless search of a cell phone would protect officer safety.  The Court rejected this argument, noting that “digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s es­cape.”  The Court went on to explain that  “officers may examine the phone’s physical aspects to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, but the data on the phone can endanger no one.”

In reaching its decision, the Court detailed how cell phones are indeed an important aspect of today’s society.  The Court stated that cell phones “are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”  The Court went on to explain that “it is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90% of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their per­son a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives – from the mundane to the intimate.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the Court, summarily concluded: “our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”