Warrantless Cell Phone Search

Search Warrant for SmartpohoneCan the police search your smart phone without a warrant? The Supreme Court answers with a resounding No.

This case arises from related cases in which two individuals, Riley and Wurie, were arrested. In undertaking a search of the men, the police seized their cell phones. At that point, the officers accessed their phone’s saved text messages, photographs, and video. In the Riley matter detectives specializing in gang activity used the phone’s data to charge him in connection with a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier. Wurie was arrested following an alleged drug sale. While under arrest, Mr. Wurie’s phone received numerous calls from a number identified as “my house.” Officers reversed searched the number, and located the address. With that information a search warrant for the address was issued. There they found drugs, a firearm, ammunition, and cash. Mr. Wurie was then charged additional drug and firearm offenses.
The defendants moved to exclude the evidence obtained with the use of their cell phones. The government responded that search of a cell phone fell within the well-established exception that warrantless search is permissible if conducted incident to a lawful arrest.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the unanimous court, rejected the government’s argument:

The United States asserts that a search of all data stored on a cell phone is “materially indistinguishable” from searches of these sorts of physical items. That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon. Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together. . .

Indeed, a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house: A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form—unless the phone is.

Justice Roberts continued:

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life,’ The fact that technology now allows 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. 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.

The opinion, Riley v. California, extends long held constitutional privacy protections to the modern day Smartphone, despite the admitted trade-off to combating crime:

We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.

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Jonathan Masters

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