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Warrantless Cell Phone Seaches Ruled Unconstitutional

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"[G]et a warrant."

These are the closing words penned by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in the recent decision of Riley v. California:

"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." Riley v. California, United States Supreme Court (decided June 25, 2014).

In its opinion, the Court addressed questions about warrantless cell phone searches conducted during the course of police investigations in two separate and distinct cases.

David Riley v. California

Following a stop for a traffic violation that led to an arrest for weapons violations, a search incident to arrest led to the discovery of a smart phone in Riley's pants pocket. After the arresting officer accessed the phone and observed a term associated with a street gang, a detective specializing in street gangs conducted a further search discovering photos and videos, which led to additional charges related to a gang shooting.

Riley filed a suppression motion requesting that the trial court throw out the evidence illegally obtained from the warrantless search of his cell phone. This request was denied. Riley was convicted and subjected to enhanced penalties due to his gang affiliation.  He appealed.

United States v. Brima Wurie

After police observed Wurie participate in an apparent drug transaction, he was arrested and transported to the police station. Incident to his arrest, the police had seized a cell phone from Wurie. While at the station, the police observed multiple incoming calls from a contact identified as "My House." Police accessed the phone's call log to identify the number associated with "My House" and traced the number to an address they believed to be Wurie's apartment.

Based on this information, the police obtained a search warrant for the address. Incident to a search of the apartment, the police found drugs, firearms, ammunition, and cash. Wurie was charged with drugs and firearms offenses.

Wurie filed a motion to suppress requesting that the trial court throw out the evidence obtained incident to the unlawful search of his cell phone without a warrant. The motion was denied and Wurie was convicted.  He appealed.

The Decision

The Fourth Amendment

The Supreme Court's analysis focused on the core principles of our right to be free for unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution citing that "the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness,'" which "generally requires obtaining a [search] warrant."

Search Incident to Arrest

The court noted, however, that warrantless searches incident to a lawful arrest have become a recognized "exception" to the warrant requirement. Nonetheless, the court also observed that the scope of such searches is not unlimited and it has been a point of great debate.

The Scope of the Search

In evaluating the scope of searches incident to arrest, the court reviewed a line of a cases collectively holding that police are permitted to conduct a warrantless search of an arrestee's person and the area within his immediate control, as well as "personal property...immediately associated with the person of the arrestee." Chimel v. California, 395 U. S. 752 (1969)(search of entire house, attic, and garage unlawfully exceeded scope and unconstitutional); United States v. Robinson, 414 U. S. 218 (1973)(search of cigarette packet concealing drugs seized from arrestee's person properly within scope and lawful); Arizona v. Gant, 556 U. S. 332, 350 (2009)(extending exception to the search of a vehicle "only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search," as well as adding an independent exception for a warrantless search of a vehicle's passenger compartment "when it is 'reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.'").

Cell Phones & Personal Privacy

Upon evaluating the policy arguments that provide a basis for and define the scope of warrantless searches incident to arrests, the Supreme Court found that cell phones do not inherently pose a safety threat to officers or a general risk of loss destruction of evidence sufficient to supersede our individual privacy rights to be free from unreasonable government intrusions. Instead, the court found that the seizure of a cell phone incident to an arrest until a warrant can properly be obtained for a search of it adequately and reasonably serves the government's interest.

In doing so, the court found that such intrusion is too great where smart phones are involved, as they are qualitatively and quantitatively distinguishable from other objects like a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse. Unlike other physical objects found on our person, "'[cell phones]' could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers." It is "a cache of sensitive personal information" that people could not otherwise carry with them prior to the modern cell phone.

By way of further distinction, the court quipped that the government's assertion that the search of data on a cell phone is 'materially indistinguishable' from a search other physical items is like saying "a ride on horseback is 'materially indistinguishable' from a flight to the moon."

Warrant Required

Ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that police generally need to get a warrant before they can search a cell phone or smart phone. For the rare case, where evidence of an imminent threat to police or public safety or destruction of evidence exists, the exception to the warrant requirement for "exigent circumstances" could be raised and applied on a case-by-case. Otherwise, police must "get a warrant" for cell phone searches.

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About the Author:

Attorney Shawn M. Curry focuses his practice exclusively on Criminal & DUI Defense.  For the last 8 years, his practice has been focused on Helping People accused of crimes throughout Central Pennsylvania.  With his base of operations in Harrisburg, PA, Attorney Curry is conveniently accessible to people facing criminal charges in Dauphin, Cumberland, York, and the surrounding counties.

Contact an experienced professional for help.

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