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Police May Not Search Data on Cell Phones Without a Warrant, U.S. Supreme Court Rules

June 25, 2014 Criminal Law and Procedure

Today’s cell phones have the capability to store data on a person’s whole life, from photos and personal notes to past whereabouts and banking records.¬†When the police arrest someone, do they have the right to search through the contents of that person’s phone without a warrant?

The U.S. Supreme Court held today in Riley v. California that police must obtain a search warrant before searching the data on a cellphone, unless an emergency reason exists.

This case was based on the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government and guarantees that all warrants must be supported by probable cause.

The police have long been able to conduct a warrantless search of a person’s body when the person is being arrested. A search of an arrested person is reasonable for two reasons. First, the person may have a concealed weapon. Second, the person may have evidence in their possession which could be destroyed before it is gathered by police.

The government in this case argued that this traditional rule of searching an arrested person’s body should be extended to searching the contents of a cell phone. The Court disagreed.

While the phone itself could be used as a weapon or store a weapon, the data stored in the phone cannot. Once the phone is secured by the police the data does not present a physical threat.

Threats to destroy the data on the phone before it can be searched are unrealistic. An outside source could theoretically wipe the data from the phone remotely, but this possibility is preventable with little effort by the police.

As in all search situations that require warrants, the police are able to still conduct a warrantless search if an emergency reason permits. For example, the police could still search the data on a phone if they had a good reason to believe an arrested person had just been texting a confederate as to the exact location of a terrorist threat about to take place.

Contact ArborYpsi Law at 734-883-9584 or at bernstein@arborypsilaw.com to speak with attorney Sam Bernstein