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Patrol

How SCOTUS Cell Phone Search Warrant Ruling Affects You

Searching most arrestees' cell phones will now require a warrant.

June 26, 2014  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

Photo via Flicker (jurvetson).
Photo via Flicker (jurvetson).

On June 25, the Supreme Court issued a combined opinion in two cases, Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie, on searches of cell phones incident to arrest.

The court ruled that the well-established exception permitting some searches incident to arrest does not apply to data searches of the arrestee's cell phone.

The court's reasoning, which had already been adopted in some jurisdictions and rejected in others, was that the immense quantity of personal information stored on the typical cell phone (such as text messages, medical records, personal appointments, and even locations and tracking of movements) placed searches of these digital devices in a Fourth Amendment class by themselves, requiring greater privacy protection than other items carried on the person. Because examination of stored data on cell phones amounts to a massive intrusion on personal privacy, the court said that "officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search."

The unanimous opinion does allow safety searches of the phone for hidden weapons (but not the contents), and recognizes that other standard exceptions could justify a warrantless search (such as consent, probation/parole terms, or exigencies requiring immediate access, such as bomb threats or rescue of kidnap victims). Unless some other established exception applies, however, law enforcement officers must obtain a search warrant to inspect the stored data on an arrestee's cell phone. (Although this decision addresses only cell phone searches, it is likely the rationale will also prohibit searches incident to arrest of any digital data storage device, such as laptops, tablets, iPods, etc.)

Responding to the argument that phones can be remotely wiped or encrypted before a warrant could be obtained, the court suggested that batteries could be removed, or the phone could be put into an aluminum foil "Faraday bag," which many agencies already use to block radio waves.

Under existing Supreme Court authority in Davis v. U.S., any evidence discovered through a cell phone search that predates the Riley-Wurie decision and that was made in good-faith reliance on previous law permitting such searches is not to be suppressed.

The combined Riley-Wurie ruling will be addressed in greater detail in a future "Point of Law" article in POLICE Magazine.

Tags: Supreme Court decisions, Search Warrants, U.S. Supreme Court Cases, Cell Phones


Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Tom @ 6/27/2014 5:45 AM

Score one for the dirtbags.

Greg @ 6/27/2014 7:51 AM

Score one for freedom from unreasonable invasions of people's privacy.

JimTheLast @ 6/27/2014 8:04 AM

Tom, back in the day we said the same thing about Miranda. I'm not real fond of the ruling but it's part of life from now on. Ya just gotta learn to live with the new rules. Make sure your local prosecutors know to put cell phone search in the probation conditions. Make sure you safeguard the phones you impound. If your agency doesn't have the Faraday Bags, go buy a roll of aluminum foil at your local big box. It'll cost you a buck fifty.

Charlie @ 6/27/2014 8:30 AM

After thirty years on the job, I find the wearing of aluminum foil on my head very effective to keeping the noise out.........seriously, as a law officer I swore to protect and uphold the Constitution. With that in mind, I don't have issue with the court here on this decision. I have learned over the years to put myself in the shoes of the average person and I wouldn't want prying eyes in my business without justification, I have that protection under the Fourth ammendment. Sure, it may be another step we have to take in order to get the information we are looking for, so what? It isn't a game-changer here. Just as there are exigencies with other situations, there will be here as well. Stay safe!

Longtimecop @ 6/27/2014 5:25 PM

Jim & Charlie, your answers are right on, and show the attitudes of good police officers.

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