Police Need Warrant to Search Arrestee’s Cell Phone in Most Cases: Riley v. California

We all have them, and most of us rely on them for much more than simply making a call. Cell phones have become a necessity of modern life, and we use them to communicate in many ways. We text. We surf the internet. We check our Facebook account. We read our email. In sum, we use them to run our lives and, in many cases, our businesses. Unfortunately, they can sometimes get us into serious trouble, including criminal charges.

So, What Happens to Your Cell Phone When You are Arrested?

In the recent case of Riley v. California, the United States Supreme Court addressed the increasingly common scenario in which a person who is arrested has a cell phone in his or her possession at the time of the arrest. In Riley, the defendant was arrested on weapons charges after being stopped for a traffic violation.

The arresting officer seized a cell phone from the defendant’s pants pocket and accessed information on the phone without seeking a warrant. Based upon information found on the phone, the defendant was implicated in a shooting. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence gathered from his phone. The California trial court denied the motion, and the defendant was convicted.

The Issue Considered by the United States Supreme Court

May the police conduct a warrantless search of the digital information stored on the cell phone of a person who has been arrested?

What the Court Held

The Court found that, generally, the police are not permitted to search an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, a warranty is required in order for there to be a lawful search. Certain exceptions to the warrant requirement have developed over the years. One of the most well-recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement is a search made incident to a lawful arrest.

The Supreme Court found that the exception for warrantless searches incident to arrest did not not apply. There are two main reasons for the searches-incident-to-arrest exception: the safety of the arresting officer and the prevention of the destruction of evidence. Cell phones are not weapons that can be used to harm the arresting officer, so the first reason for the exception does not apply. It is also unlikely that the phone would be remotely wiped or encrypted while the arresting officer waits on a warrant.

Noting that there could be situations in which cell phone date could warn police of an impending danger, the court stated that such concerns are better addressed on a case-by-case basis. According to the Court, the search of digital information on a cell phone implicates larger individual privacy interests than a brief physical search and thus requires a warrant in most cases.

Why Cell Phone Users Should Still be Careful

It should be noted that that Court did not say that cell phone data cannot be used against a defendant in court. It simply said that officers can’t search an arrestee’s phone without a warrant. Assuming that police follow the correct warrant procedure, information contained on a cell phone is still fair game in a criminal case. It can also be relevant in a civil case, and subpoenas for cell phone records are becoming increasingly common in many types of civil cases, including personal injury and family law litigation.

If You Need Help With a Case Involving a Cell Phone

At the Law Office of John C. Manoog, III, we stay abreast of all the most recent developments in evidenciary law. Whether you’ve been charged with a crime pertaining to information seized from your cell phone or you’re concerned that information on your phone may affect your car accident or other injury case, we will be glad to talk with you. Call us today at 888-262-6664 or via our online contact form.

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