New Ruling: Cell Phone Search Warrants

On June 25, 2014 the US Supreme Court handed down a landmark 9-0 decision in Riley v. California which now requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before they can search a cellphone. Previously, police officers have relied on the “search incident to arrest” doctrine to access and search cellphones ranging from flip phones to smartphones at the time of arrest without a warrant.

In the Riley case, a traffic stop lead to Riley being arrested on illegal weapons charges and a search of his cellphone lead to information connecting him to a recent shooting. The Court also considered the case of Wurie v. United States in which Wurie was arrested on drug charges and a search of his cellphone led to the officers acquiring the Defendant’s home address. With that information, the officers obtained a search warrant for the house, which led to the discovery of more drugs and guns.

The “search incident to arrest” doctrine allows the police to search the individual they arrested, as well as the area within his immediate control, without first getting a search warrant. The justification was ensure that the arrestee did not have a weapon and to prevent him from destroying evidence.

The Result of the Ruling

The Supreme Court states that now officers remain free to examine the phone to ensure that it cannot be used as a weapon. However, once that is completed there is no justification to search the cellphone because the data contained on the phone poses no threat of physical harm.

The Government argued that evidence contained on the cellphone could be destroyed by remotely wiping the phone. The Court was not persuaded by that argument believing that remote wiping was rare and could be avoided by simply turning the phone off or removing its battery.

Changing Search and Seizure

The Court acknowledged that the digital age that we are now living in requires a renewed look at search issues and was concerned about the vast amount of information that people now carry around with them from address books, calendars, banking information, to pictures and so on. The Court at one time referred to cellphones as “minicomputers” and was particularly concerned about data that was stored “in the cloud” and would therefore implicate third parties in any warrantless searches.

The Court also did not draw a distinction between flip phones and smart phones and, although they are not specifically mentioned, it is easy to see how this opinion can be applied to iPads and tablets.

So from now on if you do not give consent to search your cellphone, smartphone, iPad or tablet then the police will have to get a warrant.