Police Need a Search Warrant to Search Cell Phones Following an Arrest

Cell Phone Search WarrantRecently, the United States Supreme Court took a significant step to further protect citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.  In a consolidated opinion – Riley v. California and Wurie v. United States, the Supreme Court held that police cannot search a suspect’s cell phone upon arrest without a warrant.

In reaching such a decision, the Supreme Court set out distinct parameters separating cell phones from that of wallets, briefcases and even vehicles – all of which are subject to limited searches by police upon an arrest.  The premise behind these limited searches is to make sure that any potential evidence could not be destroyed and to ensure officer’s safety.  However, this reasoning simply does not equally apply to cell phones.  “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,” the ruling said. “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.”

The facts of the two cases are not that unique.  In 2009, Mr. Riley was pulled over for traffic violations.   During a search incident to arrest, police officers located Mr. Riley’s cell phone.   The officers began reviewing the content on Mr. Riley’s phone and during that time, uncovered terminology they believed was commonly used by a street gang.  Based upon the information found in the phone, Mr. Riley was charged with a shooting that had occurred weeks earlier, and prosecutors sought enhancements based upon his alleged gang involvement.  Mr. Riley moved to suppress the evidence found inside his cell phone, however, this motion was denied.  Mr. Riley was later convicted in State court and was sentenced to 15 years.

In Mr. Wurie’s case, he was arrested in 2007 for selling two packets of crack cocaine.  Mr. Wurie was arrested and taken to the police station where the police used call logs on Mr. Wurie’s cell phone to track down his real home address – Mr. Wurie had previously provided police with a fake address.  The police then conducted a search of the home and discovered more drugs, ammunition and a weapon.  Mr. Wurie was charged in federal court with drug and weapon charges.   Mr. Wurie also moved to suppress evidence – the evidence obtained during the search of his residence.   This motion was denied and Mr. Wurie was later convicted and and sentenced to 22 years.

In both cases, the police failed to obtain a search warrant for the phones.  And now the Supreme Court has said that is simply not ok.

While this is a significant win for criminal defense attorneys moving forward, we can rest assured that police will still try to find creative ways around the warrant requirement.  While police can still take necessary steps to ensure the protection of any potential evidence that may be contained within the cell phone while working to secure a warrant, they cannot conduct an actual search until they have a valid search warrant in hand.  However, there are still a number of exceptions that police may try to utilize to allow a search of any cell phone device, even without a warrant. Even if such circumstances exist, the police will need to show to the court that an exigent circumstance actually existed justifying the search without a warrant – meaning there was some emergency situation that substantiated the need to conduct a search prior to obtaining a valid search warrant.

Regardless, this decision makes it clear that the Supreme Court is drawing a distinct line between cell phones and that of other personal property that may be subjected to limited searches.  “Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.  Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.”  This was a significant step in the right direction to continue to ensure the protection of citizens’ constitutional rights.