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SCOTUS Requires a Warrant to Search a Cellphone


June 25, 2014

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, stated that the Fourth Amendment requires a search warrant to look at the digital contents of a cell phone that the police have seized incident to arrest. The opinion isRiley v. California, No. 13-132, 573 U.S. ___, ___ S. Ct. ___, 2013 WL 2864483 (June 25, 2014).

The decision was unanimous, with a concurrence by Justice Alito.

Basically, the Court took two cases, Riley and United States v. Wurie, No. 13-212, that had reached opposite conclusions and consolidated them. InRiley, a driver was stopped for expired registration and having a suspended driver’s license. His car was impounded and inventoried, and two handguns were found. A search of his cell phone incident to arrest and other factors led police to believe that Riley was a member of the Bloods street gang. Following a warrantless search of the phone, photographs were located tying Riley to a gang shooting and he was charged with attempted murder and several others crimes. The trial court denied a motion to suppress the evidence and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

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In Wurie, police were conducting routine surveillance and saw Wurie make a drug transaction. Wurie was arrested and his cell phone seized. They searched the phone (an older flip phone) and eventually obtained a search warrant for Wurie’s house based on the warrantless search of the phone. Police seized 215 grams of cocaine, a firearm and other drugs, and cash. Wurie’s motion to suppress was denied, but the First Circuit reversed and vacated the conviction.

Roberts held that the search incident to arrest exception (from Chimel v. United States, 395 U.S. 752 (1969)) did not include the digital contents of a cell phone. Police may examine the phone to make sure that it is not a weapon, but may not search the contents. The claim that the search is necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence is also not valid. Police may place the phone in a Faraday bag to prevent outside signals from reaching it, may turn off the phone, or may remove the battery.

Roberts cited Judge Learned Hand who said in 1926 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.” Riley, slip op. at 20 (internal citation omitted). Searching a cell phone is ransacking the house.

“The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. 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.Id., slip op. at 28 (emphasis added).

ExCop-Law Student is a former police officer, retired, who is now in his final year as a law student.