This past week, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision holding that “the police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.” The decision addressed two unrelated cases – Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie. Riley was stopped for a traffic violation in California. While searching Riley, a police officer seized Riley’s cell phone and searched it. The police found photos and video on the phone that linked Riley to a shooting that had occurred several weeks prior. Riley was subsequently charged with the shooting as a result of the evidence recovered from the phone. Wurie was arrested in Boston for drug distribution. After he was arrested, the police seized his phone. When they arrived at the police station, officers noticed that the phone was receiving several calls from a number saved as “my house.” Officers traced the number to what they believed was Wurie’s apartment, got a search warrant for the apartment, and ultimately recovered drugs, a gun, and ammunition from the apartment. Wurie was subsequently charged with additional drug and firearm charges as a result. While the underlying facts of each case were different, they both deal with the same issue: whether the police have the right to conduct a warrantless search of a suspect’s cellular phone after the suspect has been arrested.
Under the Fourth Amendment, a warrant is required before police can legally conduct a search. Despite this rule, however, there are a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement, including an exception for a search incident to lawful arrest. The search incident to lawful arrest exception allows for the warrantless search of a suspect after his arrest, which includes a search of the suspect’s person, and the area within the suspect’s immediate control. The rationale for the exception is that such a search is necessary to both ensure officer safety, and to prevent the destruction of evidence. In the cases of Riley and Wurie, the court was tasked with determining whether the police should be able to search the data contained on a suspect’s cellular phone in the same way that they can search a suspect’s pockets, or whether standards for cell phones should be different because of the vast amount of personal information they often contain.
When deciding whether an exception to the warrant requirement should be applied, the court must balance the degree of intrusion of an individual’s privacy interests against law enforcement’s need to promote a legitimate government interest. In these cases, the government argued that cell phones should not be treated differently from other objects found on an arrested suspect’s person, such as wallets, purses or address books, and noted that there was an inherent risk that data contained on cell phones could be remotely wiped and evidence lost if officers were required to obtain a warrant before searching the phone. Riley and Wurie argued that the very nature of cell phones and the quantity and quality of information that they contain set them apart from other items typically found on an suspect’s person, and therefore that a search of a cell phone constituted a greater intrusion on individuals’ privacy interests than the typical search incident to lawful arrest.
The court came down on the side of Riley and Wurie. In its decision, that court acknowledged that cell phones differ in “both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person,” adding that “before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on privacy.” Because cell phones can store “millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos that can date back years,” the court held that a search of a cell phone thereby constituted a much more significant intrusion on an individual’s privacy. The decision went on to acknowledge that “the fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such [personal and extensive] information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.”
In contrast, the court noted that the data on cellular telephones neither poses a danger to officer safety, nor results in the risk of a loss of evidence, except perhaps in unusual circumstances, which law enforcement is capable of protecting against. Specifically, although the government argued that the data on a suspect’s cell phone could be erased remotely, and that data encryption could lead to the destruction of evidence after police have seized a cell phone, the court stated that it found “little reason to believe that either problem is prevalent.”
Therefore, the court held that its “answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest [wa]s accordingly simple – get a warrant.”
This is a landmark decision and should be treated as such. If you or a loved one is currently charged with a crime that involves evidence obtained as a result of a warrantless search of a cellular phone, you need a defense attorney who will use this decision to your advantage and make sure that illegally obtained evidence is not used against you at trial. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is an experienced and skilled attorney who has litigated numerous motions to suppress, and knows how to make sure his client’s constitutional rights are protected. Call him for a free consultation today.