Police Must Have Warrant to Search Cell Phone Data

POLICE CAN NOT SEARCH YOUR CELL PHONE WITHOUT A WARRANT (WITH EXCEPTIONS AS ALWAYS)

On June 25, 2014, The Supreme Court of The United States issued its opinion in the case of Riley v. California.  The court combined the cases of Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie as the two cases presented identical issues.

Both cases involved the police searching an individual’s cell phone after the individual had been lawfully placed under arrest.  The police did not just physically search the cell phones, but rather searched the data inside the cell phones in furtherance of their investigation and in order to find potentially incriminating information.  In the Riley matter, the search of the cell phone revealed that the defendant was a member of a street gang and also involved in a shooting.  Riley was convicted of the shooting and received a sentencing enhancement for being a member of a street gang based off of the information police obtained from his cell phone.  In the Wurie matter, the police accessed the call log on the defendant’s telephone and traced certain numbers with suspicious activity.  As a result, Wurie was charged and convicted of several drug and firearms offenses.

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects an individuals right to be secure in their person and property.  It prohibits searches without a warrant signed by a neutral and detached magistrate specifically stating the items to be found and where the items are to be found.  There are limited exceptions to the “warrant requirement.”  A warrantless search, and the information derived therefrom, is only admissible if the warrantless search falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement.

One specific exception to the warrant requirement is “search incident to lawful arrest.”  However, the search is limited to the area within the arrestee’s immediate control.  The search is justified for the purposes of officer safety and to prevent the destruction of evidence.  When asked to extend the search incident to lawful arrest to cellular phones, the Supreme Court ruled that a search of the digital information on the phone does not serve the government’s two purposes for warrantless searches.  The search of the digital information on the phone is not justified as a means to protect officer safety.  While it could possibly be argued that there is a potential for the destruction of evidence, that is balanced against the individuals privacy interest which, when it comes to the search of the data on a phone, is significantly greater than a brief physical search.  Nevertheless, the Supreme Court found that the data stored on cell phones does not present a threat to officer safety or a potential for the destruction of evidence.

While the digital data stored by a cell phone does not present any imminent threat to an arresting officer’s safety, the officer is still free to examine the physical features of the cell phone in order to ensure that it cannot be used as a weapon. Weapons are not only guns and knives, police take everything as a weapon if it can harm in any way, it’s recommended for people who like guns to get great deals on airsoft guns. While the destruction of evidence via “remote wiping” is certainly a possibility, the Supreme Court does not rule out the ability of the police to disable a telephone in order to prevent remote wiping and secure the scene.  The court also provides for the police to search an individual’s telephone without a warrant under the exigent circumstances doctrine.

For additional information, please contact

The Law Offices of Michael A. Dye, PA, 1 E Broward Blvd #700, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301 (954)990-0525 or
The Law Offices of Michael A. Dye, PA, 2 S Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33131 (305)459-3286