U.S. Supreme Court protects cell phones from warrantless searches

In June 2014, the United States Supreme Court recognized not only the ubiquity of cell phones in the United States, but the dependence of the public upon them to keep track of the minutiae of their daily lives and, most importantly, the need to keep the information on all those cell phones private.

Riley v. California

In Riley v. California, the Court consolidated two cases. In one, the defendant was stopped by the police for a traffic violation and eventually arrested on a weapons charge. His cell phone-a smart phone-located in his pants pocket, was seized, and the contents thereof resulted in the defendant being charged for a shooting and the prosecution sought an enhanced sentence based on a gang sentence based, again, on the digital information contained in the cell phone. The second defendant was arrested after his participation in a drug sale and his cell phone-an older flip phone-on his person, was confiscated at the police station. The police accessed the phone's call log to locate the defendant's apartment. After then obtaining a search warrant, a search was conducted, leading to firearm and drug charges.

Fourth Amendment and warrantless searches incidental to arrests

The Court started its unanimous opinion with asserting that the goal of the Fourth Amendment is that no search is to occur without a warrant. However, a warrantless search is constitutional insofar as it is reasonable, and, in the cases before it, reasonable in light of a lawful arrest in order "to discover and seize the fruits or evidences of crime." There are three generally recognized categories of warrantless searches incidental to arrests: (1) searches within the arrestee's control, justified to protect the safety of the officer and to prevent the destruction of evidence; (2) searches of all persons in custody, without regard to officer safety or evidence destruction; and (3) car searches where the person under arrest is unsecured and can reach the passenger compartment or where evidence of a crime may reasonably be found in the vehicle.

Cell phones and privacy issues

Noting the pervasive influence of smart phone technology upon American life, the immense amount of data that can be store thereon, and the fact that smart phones are actually more computers than phones and are able to access even more data through access to the cloud, the Court balanced the safety and evidentiary issues against the privacy concerns represented by warrantless seizures of cell phones.

Digital data is not a safety concern upon confinement; the external aspects of the cell phone itself can be examined for safety issues, but not the data itself. As to the concern about the destruction of evidence, although issues were raised about data encryption and remote wiping of the phone's data, the Court noted that there were several relatively simple work-arounds (that is, turning the phone off, removing the battery, using a Faraday bag) to gain time while a warrant was obtained.

One remaining exception allowing warrantless search

The Supreme Court did leave one possible exception: the exigent circumstances exception, where the needs of law enforcement are "so compelling" that a warrantless search is acceptable under the Fourth Amendment. Examples include the imminent destruction of evidence, explosives and a texting relating to a child abduction.

Search-and-seizure issues often underlie practically all criminal proceedings. If you have been arrested and accused of a crime and fear that you are a victim of a bad search and seizure, you should contact an experienced criminal attorney at your earliest convenience in order to protect your rights.