Can police search your cell phone?

On July 4, 2014, in Criminal, by John A. Weber IV, ESQ.

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Riley v. California – “The Cell Phone Case”

On June 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Riley v. California. In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court held that “police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.”  Therefore, with some exceptions, officers must first secure a warrant before conducting a search of your cell phone incident to an arrest. The Court went on to explicitly state that “even though the search incident to arrest exception does not apply to cell phones, other case-specific exceptions may still justify a warrantless search of a particular phone.”

One such exception that may justify a warrantless search of a cell phone is exigency. The Court stated that exigent circumstances “could include the need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence in individual cases, to pursue a fleeing suspect, and to assist persons who are seriously injured or are threatened with imminent injury.” The Court also stated that the exigent circumstances exception could be used to deal with “a suspect texting an accomplice who, it is feared, is preparing to detonate a bomb, or a child abductor who may have information about the child’s location on his cell phone.” Though not mentioned by the Court, the consent and abandonment exceptions may also apply under certain circumstances. I can also imagine a scenario where the plain view exception could be used to establish exigency or  support a warrant application.

Additionally, the court stated that law enforcement officers “remain free to examine the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon—say, to determine whether there is a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case.”

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