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.
Today the Supreme Court unanimously held that a warrant is required to search a cell phone, in the case of Riley v. California, which also addressed another case, United States v. Wurie.
In the main case, David Riley had been pulled over for a routine traffic violation (an expired registration). Finding loaded guns in his car, the police then inspected his cell phone, and found suspicious information that they “associated with a street gang.” A deeper search of his smartphone uncovered data that connected Riley to a shooting. Based at least in part on that evidence, Riley was convicted of attempted murder.
The Wurie case involved the police searching the “recent calls” log of Wurie’s flip phone (yeah, we know), which implicated him in certain drug and gun crimes.
Today the Supreme Court firmly stated that in order to search a cell phone, the police must first obtain a warrant.
Says the Supreme Court:
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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.”
In the opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court also notes that “We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Privacy comes at a cost.”
Of course, many suspects will still simply hand their phone over to the police when requested, which may obviate this ruling as it then becomes a search with permission.
Also, some criminals aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed – there are plenty of examples of people doing stupid things with their cell phones.
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You can read the full text of the Supreme Court Riley cell phone search decision here (PDF).
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