COVID-19 UPDATE: We are open! Our team is working and offering consultations via phone, e-mail, and video conferencing.
Start With Your Free Consultation 612.444.5020

Riley v. California: Warrantless Searches of Phones Are Unconstitutional

Can a cop look through your cell phone without a warrant after they have arrested you? That was the question answered recently by the United States Supreme Court in the case Riley v. California. The Supreme Court gave a great victory to the privacy interests of individual answered this question with a resounding "no." This case dealt with two sets of facts which both involved police arresting individuals and then subsequently looking through the arrested person's phone. Evidence obtained off of these phones was then used against these defendants in their criminal case. The defendant's attempted to suppress this evidence claiming that the warrantless search of their phone violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

Prior Supreme Court decisions provided a backdrop of case law which guided the Court's decision in this case. The general rule is that a warrant is required in order for police to perform a constitutional search of one's possessions. However, an exception to this rule has been created, titled the "search incident to arrest" exception. This exception applies in the following two contexts: First, after arresting an individual, police can search the person and the area surrounding the person for reasons of officer safety. Second, police can search the person and the area surrounding the person for evidence which could be destroyed or concealed by the person.

With this case law in mind, the Supreme Court applied both prongs in the Riley case. With respect to the officer safety prong, the Court held that a search of the phone would not serve the purpose of helping officer safety. Specifically, digital data stored on a phone can never be used as a weapon against officers. Any hypotheticals put forth by the State were deemed to be based in fantasy and thus did not prove to be persuasive with regards to officer safety concerns. With respect to the destruction of evidence prong, the Court held that while a seizure of the phone was necessary, a search of its contents was not in order to prevent destruction of evidence.

The State of California put forth two scenarios were data could be cleared from a phone once the officer has seized it.

The first scenario is "remote wiping" which clears the data of a phone after a signal is sent to the phone.

The second scenario is encryption of the phone's data which could occur once the officer attempted to log in to the phone. The Supreme Court decided that these two scenarios were not prevalent.

Further, the ability to search a phone would not necessarily prevent either of these two scenarios from taking place. Thus, with neither prong of the search incident to arrest exception met, the Supreme Court held that police would need a warrant prior to searching the phone of an arrested person.

The law regarding the search of cell phones is now well established.This case both prevents police from unconstitutionally intruding into one's personal life and eroding the Fourth Amendment of the constitution. If you are arrested, the police need a warrant prior to searching the contents of your phone unless your phone presents a very unique case to the officer (I.E. they have reason to believe that phone could also be used as a weapon). It is important to be aware of this new ruling as it will continue to govern the ability of police to search people's cell phones for the foreseeable future. This is a great ruling in favor individual privacy by the Supreme Court.

Link to the Decision:


What Our Clients Are Saying

  • “ Today I had a court appearance where your attorney, LIS CARLSON represented me. I must start at the beginning, MS. CARLSON returned my phone call to her with in an hour of my first call to your office. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the quick response to my call & most important how LIS immediately made me feel, she was professional, caring, her ability to immediately know that I was a total mess. Before she finished with my call she made sure that I was alright, her compassion for me was extremely needed. I immediately felt there couldn’t be a better attorney in the state better than LIS! Throughout this entire process, Lis was a pillar of strength. I was amazed at how she handled everything with extreme care & some very excellent, professional legal skills. I count my blessings but I count them twice when I came to LIS. The world needs more people like LIS, smart, intelligent, kind and caring.” - P.G.
  • “How do I ever thank you enough for your amazingly great strategy that got my case dismissed! ” - J. E.
  • “ Kayla Wengronowitz was my attorney in a claim against me involving Title IX and won my difficult and extensive case. She was a beacon of hope to me when my options seemed very limited. Kayla provided clarity for me to understand everything happening in the case, she made smart and calculated decisions, she made sure I was comfortable with every decision she made, and she responded to difficult situations seemingly with ease. Most importantly, Kayla was empathetic and provided comfort throughout the strenuous process. I am extremely grateful for her service and highly recommend her without reservation.” - Anonymous
  • “I strongly recommended to anybody who needs a criminal lawyer representation ” - M.M.
  • “ I just wanted to thank you so much! I am so pleased with all the hard work you put in. I would have never had the chance to get the outcome I did without you. You did an amazing job and we are feeling very greatful to have made the right call when we chose you.” - P.K.
View More Testimonials

Don't Wait To Request Your Free Consultation

We take calls at any time of the day or night, so please don’t wait to find out how we can assist you. During your first meeting, we'll evaluate your case and determine if we are the right fit for you.

  • Please enter your name.
  • This isn't a valid email address.
    Please enter your email.
  • This isn't a valid phone number.
    Please enter your phone number.
    You entered an invalid number.
  • Please make a selection.
  • Please enter a message.