SCOTUS Holds a Right to Privacy in Cell Phones: Police May Not Search Cell Phone Data as a Search Incident to Arrest

Cell Phone

Lansing Michigan Fourth Amendment Attorney

In a rare 9-0 decision last week, the Supreme Court of the United States held that police may not search cell phone data as a search incident to arrest. Instead, the Court held that police must generally obtain a warrant if they want to search an arrestee’s phone. That is a big victory for the Fourth Amendment as Constitutional and privacy advocates rejoiced.

Riley v California and California v Wurie

The Court combined two companion cases for the purpose of deciding the issue of whether searching through cell phone data was a valid search incident to arrest. The two cases were Riley v Californian and California v Wurie. In Riley, the defendant was arrested after a traffic violation led to a weapons charge. Officers searched Riley’s cell phone and repeatedly saw term associated with street gangs. Based upon information they found and after further analysis of the cell phone’s content, Riley was charged with a shooting and faced an enhanced sentence based on gang membership. The trial court denied Riley’s motion to suppress and the California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision.

In California v Wurie, the defendant was arrested after police observed a drug transaction in a car. At the police station, police noticed an incoming call on Wurie’s phone from “my house.” They accessed his call log and traced the number to Wurie’s residence. Police obtained a search warrant and found drugs, guns, ammunition, and cash. The trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress. The First Circuit reversed the denial, suppressed the evidence, and vacated the conviction. Certiorari was granted by the Supreme Court in both cases.

Fourth Amendment Warrant Requirement

The Fourth Amendment grants a right to privacy in our homes, papers, and effects by restricting the government from performing unreasonable searches and seizures. A warrant, supported by probable cause, is generally required for a search. However, there are numerous exceptions to the search warrant requirement that have been enumerated by the Supreme Court over the years. One of those warrant exceptions is a search incident to arrest. When placed under arrest, the police may search your clothes and artifacts in order to protect the police from anything harmful the arrestee may have and to prevent the destruction of evidence. Also, the police will often keep an inventory of everything recovered in order to protect the department from civil suits from defendants who may claim the police lost, stole, or damaged their property.

Balancing Test—Privacy vs Governmental Interest

The search incident to arrest is limited to the area immediately within the arrestee’s control. Such a warrantless search is justified by balancing the interests in the officer’s safety versus the legitimate governmental interests. The governmental interest being the aforementioned safety of the officer and to prevent the destruction of evidence.

SCOTUS: Cell Phones are Unique and Different from Most Physical Objects

The Supreme Court correctly recognized that cell phones are unique and vastly different than most physical objects that may be recovered on an arrestee’s person. Cell phones are essentially minicomputers that also operate as a phone. They contain tons of pages of text, information, pictures, videos, etc. due to their high storage capacity. Cell phones keep records of nearly every aspect of our lives.

The justices noted that digital data cannot be used as a weapon against the police or to help the arrestee escape. The police can certainly examine the physical aspect of the phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, but not the digital information. The justices did not agree with any of the government’s arguments.

The government argued that searching a phone could protect the officer’s safety by looking for warnings that the arrestee’s confederates were coming to the scene. SCOTUS held that this type of argument is best left to a case-by-case basis under an exigent circumstances analysis. The government further argued that cell phones are susceptible to remote wiping and data encryption, so searching through them will preserve any evidence that may be lost or destroyed. The justices stated that not only was this broad concern not proven to be prevalent, but that having the police search through the phone would be an adequate solution.

Cell Phone Data is not Subject to Search Incident to Arrest

The Supreme Court refused to form a hybrid rule, or compromise, offered by the government. The government proposed that the Court could limit the holding so that police officers could only search phone data for relevant information pertaining to the crime the defendant was arrested for. The Court declined this as well. Instead, the Supreme Court stood firm on the principles of the Fourth Amendment and held that we the people have a right to privacy in our cell phone data. The police cannot search through your phone simply because you are arrested. If they believe the phone contains relevant information of a crime, they will need to cite probable cause to a judge or magistrate and get a warrant. As it should be. Our founding fathers would be proud.

Lansing Michigan Criminal Defense Attorney

If you are facing criminal charges and believe your Fourth Amendment rights have been violated or you are the victim of an unreasonable search and seizure, call Austin Legal Services, PLC today at (517) 614-1983 to speak to a Michigan Fourth Amendment lawyer for a free consultation!

Defending criminal charges, Fourth Amendment, and other Constitutional rights throughout Michigan in the counties of Ingham, Eaton, Livingston, Jackson, Clinton, Kent, Calhoun, Kalamazoo in the cities of Lansing, East Lansing, Mason, Brighton, Howell, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Charlotte, St. Johns, Grand Rapids.