No More Warrantless Searches of Cell Phones

Is it a violation of the 4th Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search & seizure for a police officer to search a suspect’s cell phone without a warrant?

Fort Worth warrantless cell phone searchU.S. Supreme Court Holding: YES – The 4th Amendment prohibits officers from searching a suspects cell phone for information without a warrant.

Riley v. California; U.S. v. Wurie, (Consolidated by the Supreme Court in one case) 2014 U.S. LEXIS 4497 (U.S. June 25, 2014)

Riley v. California: In this case, Police officers arrested Appellant and searched the cell phone he was carrying incident to his arrest. The officers discovered photographs and videos on Appellant’s cell phone that were admitted as evidence against him at trial. As a result, Appellant was convicted. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction, holding that the warrantless search of Appellant’s cell phone incident to his arrest was lawful.

U.S. v. Wurie: In this case, Police officers arrested Appellant for distribution of crack cocaine and seized two cell phones from him. Officers searched the call log on one of the cell phones and determined the phone number labeled “my house” was associated with a nearby apartment. Officers went to the apartment and saw the name “Wurie” written on the mailbox. The officers obtained a warrant, searched the apartment and found drugs and firearms.

Appellant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from his apartment, arguing the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by searching his cell phone incident to arrest. In reversing Appellant’s conviction, the First Circuit Court of Appeals held the search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement did not authorize the warrantless search of data on cell phones seized from individuals arrested by police officers.

The Supreme Court consolidated the cases, holding that police officers generally may not search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested, without first obtaining a warrant.

Previously, the court held police officers could conduct warrantless searches of arrestees and possessions within the arrestees’ control, incident to a custodial arrest. The court concluded such searches were reasonable in order to discover weapons or any evidence on the arrestee’s person so that evidence could not be concealed or destroyed.

The court concluded this rationale does not apply to modern cell phones. First, digital data stored on a cell phone cannot be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or aid an arrestee in escaping. The court emphasized that police officers may still examine the physical aspects of phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon. For example, the court noted a police officer may examine a cell phone to determine whether there is a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case. However, once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential threats the data on the phone cannot harm anyone.

Second, the court stated the government provided little evidence to believe that loss of evidence from a seized cell phone, by remote wiping of the data on the phone, was a common occurrence. Even if remote wiping were a concern, the court listed two ways remote wiping could be prevented. First, the officer could turn the phone off or remove its battery. Second, the officer could put the phone inside a device, called a Faraday bag, that would isolate the phone from radio waves. The court added that Faraday bags are cheap, lightweight, and easy to use and a number of law enforcement agencies already encourage their use. In addition, the court commented that if a police officers are truly confronted with individualized facts suggesting that a defendant’s phone will be the target of an imminent remote wiping attempt, they may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to search that phone immediately.

The court further recognized that cell phones are different from other objects that an arrestee might have on his person. Before cell phones existed, a search of an arrestee generally constituted a small intrusion on the arrestee’s privacy. However, modern cell phones are, in essence, mini-computers that have immense storage capacity on which many people keep a digital record of nearly aspect of their lives. Consequenly, the warrantless search of a cell phone consitutes a significant intrusion upon a person’s privacy. If police officers wish to search a cell phone incident to arrest, they need to obtain a warrant.

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