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Is it Legal for Police to Search My Cellphone?

July 6, 2015
Category: Police Searches
Tags: police search rights smartphone

person using smartphone

Did you know the police need a warrant to search a cell phone taken from a person during an arrest? About this time last year, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Riley v. California.1 This was actually two consolidated cases involving the same issue.

In the first case, a man was stopped for a traffic violation, then arrested for a weapons violation. During the arrest, the officers seized a cell phone, and a search of the cell phone’s contents revealed evidence of gang membership, which was later used against the defendant.

In the second case, the defendant was allegedly seen dealing drugs, was arrested, and a search of his cell phone turned up several calls to “my house.” The police checked the contact list to find the phone number associated with that name, and then obtained a search warrant for the associated house and found drugs, a gun, ammunition, and cash.

Police can search you during an arrest

Now, it’s long been true that the police can search a person in the process of arresting him or her, even without a warrant. The Supreme Court first mentioned this rule in 1914, remarking that it was “always recognized under English and American law.”2 The exact scope of this rule was refined over the years, with cases holding that it was based on the need to protect police officers from concealed weapons and prevent destruction of evidence,3 and later holding that because these justifications were generally present during an arrest, the courts should not question whether they were true in any particular arrest: any search of a person during his or her arrest was acceptable.4

What changed between that last case and Riley?

Well, the Court was aware that modern cell phones allow access to far more personal, private information that anything people have carried around with them before. The digital information on a cell phone, or held elsewhere and accessed through the phone’s internet connection, is equivalent to not just a person’s telephone, but also their “cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”5 When police gains access to these records, it is a much greater invasion of privacy than was traditionally contemplated by a search of a person. And since the digital information on a phone can’t be used as a weapon to the harm the arresting officer, the traditional justification for the search does not apply. As a result, the Court held that a search warrant must usually be obtained by police before they search a cell phone.

We at DRA e-Law recently had occasion to cite this warrant requirement when one of our clients was arrested, his phone was seized, and evidence from his phone was used to link him to drug sales. It’s a classic example of the law changing to fit changes in the world, and we thought it would be of interest to our readers.

Footnotes

1.No. 13-132 (U.S. June 25, 2014).
2.Id. slip op. at 5 (quoting Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 392 (1914)).
3.Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969).
4.United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973).
5.Riley, No. 13-132 slip op. at 17.

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