Long Beach Attorneys Applaud Supreme Court’s Ruling Requiring Police To Obtain Warrant Before Searching Cell Phones

Police for many years have been scrolling through cell phones of criminal suspects during an arrest without first obtaining Judicial Approval.  That changed this week when the High Court of the land ruled a warrant is required.

In two cases (one state, one federal), the Court considered whether police may conduct a warrantless search of digital information on a cell phone seized from a person under arrest. In the California case, Riley was stopped for expired registration tags and found to be driving on a suspended license. Pursuant to department policy, police impounded his car. During an inventory search, police found illegal firearms and Riley was arrested. Incident to arrest, Riley was searched. Data in his smart phone was searched and information was found which resulted in an attempted murder and other convictions. The state court affirmed, including the denial of his motion to suppress. Certiorari was granted. Held: Reversed. A search incident to arrest is an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, although the scope of the exception has been debated. Such searches have been allowed of the person and area within the arrestee’s control (Chimel v. California (1969) 395 U.S. 752), the personal property immediately associated with the arrestee’s person (U.S. v. Robinson (1973) 414 U.S. 218), and a vehicle passenger compartment when it is reasonable to believe there may be evidence there related to the crime of arrest (Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332). In deciding whether to extend the exception to cell phones, the individual’s privacy interests must be balanced against the government’s interests in conducting the search. The risks identified in Chimel, harm to officers and destruction of evidence, do not apply to cell phone data. A cell phone itself cannot be used as a weapon and officers remain free to examine the physical aspects of the phone. The phone may be seized and secured to prevent destruction of evidence while police seek a warrant. Where privacy-related concerns are substantial, such as the vast quantities of personal information contained in cell phones, a search may require a warrant notwithstanding an arrestee’s diminished expectation of privacy because cells phones differ quantitatively and qualitatively from other physical items. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.'” (thanks CCAP)

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