Tulsa Attorney BlogCell Phone Searches Require Warrants, U.S. Supreme Court Rules

Landmark Decision Advances Digital Privacy

warrantless search cell phoneIn a decision that could effect countless ongoing cases, the United States Supreme Court has determined that police cannot search an arrested suspect’s cell phone without a warrant. The unanimous June 25, 2014 decision was immediately hailed as a landmark contribution to digital era privacy rights.

The court heard arguments about cases from Massechusetts and California in which information found in arrested suspects’ cell phones led police to charge the suspects with additional crimes. In both cases, the court deemed evidence from the cell phones inadmissible.

Prosecutors had argued cell phone searches were no different than searching the pockets of an arrested suspect. The court decision recited the limits of such searches, but concluded information stored on cell phones is different in both quantity and quality from items otherwise discovered during searches incident to arrest.

Based on prior Supreme Court decisions, warrantless searches incident to an arrest must be either:

  • limited to areas within the arrestee’s immediate control,
  • justified as necessary for officer safety, or
  • necessary to prevent destruction of evidence.

Data stored on cell phones goes well beyond that scope, the court concluded. Cell phone can contain hundreds of thousands of pages of personal data. The data can reveal intimate details about all aspects of a person’s life.

The court noted cell phones can contain information about where a person has been, who they have contacted and what they have been doing on the Internet. The information can date back several years. Cell phone connectivity with servers might provide police access to data not physically stored on the portable device.

No practical solution would allow police to seize only evidence that fits within existing limits. Any rules the court might propose for on-the-scene cell phone searches would throw lower courts into a perpetual balancing act that could easily be avoided by requiring warrants for most cell phone searches.

The court allowed for exigent circumstances where some immediate need might excuse police’ warrantless searches – such as the possibility that an arrestee had called someone who would endanger police during an arrest. Police have available technology to prevent remote wiping of data stored on cell phones, the court noted.

Read the full decision in Riley v. California, 13-132 at www.supremecourt.gov.

Free Consultation: Tulsa Criminal Attorney

If you have a pending case where police have based an investigation on evidence seized from a cell phone, contact a Tulsa criminal attorney to find out if that evidence might be inadmissible. For a free consultation with a Tulsa criminal defense attorney at Wirth Law Office, call (918) 879-1681 or send a written question using the form at the top of this page.

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