In an extremely important decision issued last week, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the police must obtain a search warrant before looking at the data contained in the cell phone of someone who has been arrested. The name of the case is Riley v. California. It overruled a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case that came to the opposite conclusion. In the lead case before the Court, the defendant had been stopped for a traffic violation and eventually arrested on weapons charges. The police took the defendant’s cellphone and looked at the photos and videos that had been saved. Those photos and videos connected the defendant to a gang shooting.
The defendant argued that the police violated his right to be free from an unreasonable search by looking at the files in his cell phone without a warrant. The government argued that looking at the photos and videos in the cellphone constituted a “search incident to arrest” – a legal principal that allows the police to search a person and his immediate surroundings following an arrest to ensure that the defendant does not have access to weapons. The Supreme Court rejected that argument, noting that the data in a cell phone cannot be used as a weapon by the person who has been arrested. Therefore, while the police can look at the exterior of the cell phone (to make sure there is not a hidden razor blade or other weapon, for example), there is no need to search its content.
The Supreme Court rejected the government’s additional argument that searches of cell phone data are necessary to ensure that evidence will not be destroyed. The Court noted that there are less restrictive ways for the police to ensure that cell phone data is not remotely destroyed (by removing the phone’s battery, for example).
Most importantly, the Court recognized that cellphones contain private information of the user that should be protected by the Constitution. Information regarding sensitive Internet searches, private messages, and even call logs are entitled to Constitutional protection. The Court summarized that its “answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to arrest is accordingly simply – get a warrant.”
Police will likely respond to this opinion by asking people under arrest if they consent to a search of their cellphones. If arrestees voluntarily allow the police to snoop in their cellphones, a warrant is not needed. Therefore, it is extremely important that everyone under arrest makes it very clear to police officers that they do not have permission to search their cellphones.