Warrants needed to search cellphones, says US Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police officers must usually obtain a warrant before searching an arrestee’s cellphone.

Take a moment to consider all of the information you currently have stored in your cellphone. If you are like many Americans, you probably have text messages and photos stored on your phone. In addition, you may have access to multiple email accounts and your calendar.

According to Chief Justice John Roberts, 90 percent of Americans use a cellphone these days. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant before searching the data stored in a cellphone seized incident to arrest.

Two cases before the high court

The U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases that addressed the same issue.

The first case - Riley v. California - started out as a routine traffic stop. After Riley was stopped and arrested by a police officer, his cellphone was seized. While the officer never obtained a warrant to search the phone, he conducted a search of the information stored within, nevertheless.

Based in part on the photographs and other information stored in the phone, law enforcement officers alleged Riley had been involved in a shooting that had taken place weeks earlier. They also claimed he was involved in a gang. Riley was ultimately convicted of charges associated with the shooting.

The second case - Wurie v. U.S. - began when Wurie was arrested on drug charges, as law enforcement officers believed they had witnessed him participate in a drug sale. Upon a warrantless search of his cellphone, police officers were able to identify Wurie's home address. Officers then obtained a warrant and searched his home. The search of Wurie's home ultimately led to his conviction on weapon and drug charges.

The Supreme Court's unanimous decision

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled - in a unanimous decision - that police officers must generally obtain a warrant before searching a cellphone seized incident to arrest.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that people have the right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."

In most cases, law enforcement officers must first obtain a warrant before conducting a search. An exception to the rule exists, however, if the search is being conducted incident to a lawful arrest.

In the majority opinion, Justice Roberts concluded that the reasoning that allows for warrantless searches incident to arrest does not extend to cellphones. He concluded that the information stored in an arrestee's cellphone does not pose an immediate threat of harm to the police officer. In addition, it is unlikely that the information stored in the phone would be lost during the time it took to obtain a warrant to search the phone.

Consequently, he concluded, "Privacy comes at a cost." Law enforcement officers must typically obtain a warrant before searching the data stored in a cellphone seized incident to a lawful arrest.

If you are facing criminal charges in California, you need to take prompt action to ensure your rights are protected. A skilled criminal defense attorney will be able to review the evidence being used against you to determine whether it may be inadmissible in court.

Keywords: U.S. Supreme Court, cellphone, warrant, search