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:

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