What did the Supreme Court rule?

Recently the Supreme Court ruled that, as a general rule, the police must have a warrant to search the cell phone of a person being arrested. Thus the Supreme Court recognizes that cell phones and the information they can access require their own warrant instead of automatically being included in law enforcement’s search of a person they arrest.

There are limits and qualifications to this decision. This does not mean that one’s cell phone cannot be searched, just that the police must obtain a warrant first. Police officers and judges are likely to be just as current in technology as the rest of us; there are anecdotes that a police officer could send a PDF of a search warrant to a judge, and the judge could use their tablet to sign it and send it back very quickly. There is also an exception called the “exigent circumstances exception” (that means pressing or demanding circumstances) that applies to other types of searches as well, which means that if law enforcement has good reason to believe something particularly time-sensitive is at stake — in the case of a kidnapping or a plot to set off a bomb, for instance — then they can search the phone at the time of arrest and get a court to recognize this search as legal later. As the opinion says at the end of section IV, “The critical point is that, unlike the search incident to arrest exception, the exigent circumstances exception requires a court to examine whether an emergency justified a warrantless search in each particular case” (italics added; a “search incident to arrest” is the search of one’s person made at the time of an arrest. It is the kind of search a cell phone is, by this ruling, exempted from). The police may also examine a cell phone without accessing its data to make sure it is not a bomb disguised as a cell phone.

What were the cases that raised this issue?

This Supreme Court ruling was made in two cases. In the case of United States v. Wurie, Mr. Wurie was arrested when police saw him make what appeared to be a drug sale from his car. When he brought to the station, his cell phone (which was not a smart phone) kept ringing and displaying a call from “my house.” The police looked up in the phone’s call log to get the number, looked up the associated address via a phone directory, found the address, and secured Wurie’s apartment while getting a search warrant. Once they had the warrant and searched the apartment, they found drugs (including crack) and a gun. Thus Wurie was convicted on possessing and distributing crack cocaine and for having the gun. If his home had not been searched, he would not have gotten charged with all that.

In the case of Riley v. California, Mr. Riley was stopped when a police officer noticed the registration tags on his car were expired, and then the officer checked Riley’s license and found that it had been suspended. So Riley was arrested, and the police took and examined his smart phone. The first officer to examine the phone noticed that some notes on the phone had the letters “CK,” which the officer guessed to be slang for a gang. Then another detective looked at the photos and videos on the phone and found hints that Riley was in the Bloods gang and that he had been involved in a shooting a few weeks prior. Riley was tried in connection with that shooting and some of the photos and videos from his phone were evidence against him. He received a longer sentence since the phone included evidence that he was involved in the Bloods gang. So the question before the Supreme Court was: Should these materials from his phone have been used against him even though they were obtained without a warrant?

What is the history of this issue?

When this country was made up of British colonies, the British issued “writs of assistance” that could be used by law enforcement to search anyone or anywhere on the slightest whim. Unreasonable searches were one of the main issues that made the colonists decide to revolt. After the U.S.A. was founded, the Fourth Amendment was added to the Constitution to guarantee that warrants would only be issued for good reasons (“probable cause”) and specify what was being searched for. Americans have wanted to feel that their stuff was private since at least the 1700’s.

Thus the rule of thumb in this country is that all searches by law enforcement need a warrant. However, a search made of someone’s person on being arrested (called “the search incident to arrest”) is not covered by this rule of thumb. This used to simply mean what was in one’s pockets or, in the case of arresting a driver of a car, what was in the glove box or wherever the driver might have hidden anything incriminating on being pulled over.

The Supreme Court decided that since a cell phone, especially a smart phone, can hold so much information about someone — and especially since so many people have them, carry them around nearly always, and the information can go back for years — that searching a cell phone is as significant as searching someone’s house. Thus, under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement needs a warrant to search it.

Looking ahead, what does this mean?

In summary:

  • If you have a cell phone, this does not mean that the police can never search your cell phone — just that the police have to get a warrant to do so. The police will still take your cell phone away if you get arrested.
  • If you are worried that this ruling will hinder the ability of the police to gather evidence against criminals, it does not necessarily do that. Law enforcement can still do simple things to prevent data on a smart phone from being remotely destroyed such as removing its battery or sealing it off from its signal until they have a warrant.
  • This ruling does mean that this country still values privacy highly. Quoting a case from 1971, the Court’s majority opinion said, “the warrant requirement is … not merely ‘an inconvenience to be somehow “weighed” against the claims of police efficiency.’” Everyone has rights, even when government officials are suspicious of them.


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