The Supreme Court of the United States in a unanimous decision ruled that the police may not search your cell phone without a warrant simply because you have been arrested.
The decision involved two separate cases. In the first case David Riley was stopped by a police officer for driving with an expired tag. During the stop the officer learned that Riley’s license had been suspended and the car was impounded. An inventory search of the car was then conducted and Riley was arrested for possession of concealed and loaded firearms. During the search of Riley incident to his arrest, his “smart pho, Riley was charged with additional crimes. Prior to trial Riey’s attorney moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone.
In the second case, an officer performing routine surveillance saw Brima Wurie make a drug sale from a car. Wurie was arrested. At the police station her two cell phones were taken. The officers noticed that one of the phones was repeatedly receiving calls from a particular number. They used the an online directory to trace the number to an apartment where after executing a warrant crack cocaine and other drug related items were found. The lawyer for Wurie moved to suppress the evidence arguing that it was the fruit of an unconstitutional search of the cell phone.
The Fourth Amendment provides that people have the right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally for a search to be reasonable, a warrant is required. Without a warrant a search is only reasonable if it falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement.
The Court affirmed the longstanding right of the Government to search a person when legally arrested. This includes the right to search the area within the person’s immediate control is acceptable. But the Court drew a bright line with respect to the digital content on cell phones. The Court stated that the search of information on a cell phone goes beyond a brief physical search. Therefore, officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting a search of a cell phone. The Court noted that digital data on a cell phone cannot be used as a weapon. Once the phone has been secured it does not pose any potential threat. In response to the argument that evidence could be lost through “remote wiping” the Court noted that there are two simple ways to prevent this: (1) turn the phone off; and (2) put in a Farraday bag (essentially a sandwich bag made of aluminum foil.
In discussing privacy concerns, the Court quoted Judge Learned Hand who in a 1926 opinion stated that it is “a totally different thing to search a man’s pockets and use against him what they contain, from ransacking his house for everything which may incriminate him.” The Court went on to recognized that this is no longer true if his pockets contain a cell phone. A cell phone would typically reveal “far more than the most exhaustive search of a house.” The Court then concluded with the following statement: “Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”