Cops Cannot Search Your Cellphone Without A Warrant

Are you entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy concerning your cell phone use? Up until recently, the California Supreme Court has said no. If you were arrested on suspicion of committing a crime, the police could routinely search your cell phone, including your stored images, websites visited, texts and calls made and received.

The rule used to be that such a search following your arrest was not protected under the Fourth Amendment. However, the United States Supreme Court dramatically changed course on June 25, 2014 when it unanimously decided that warrantless searches of an individual's cellphone are unconstitutional.

This Supreme Court decision will have a profound impact on police procedures regarding cellphone searches.

Riley v. California, 573 U. S. (2014)

The issue before the Supreme Court combined several cases across the country. All of these cases dealt with the same basic issue: Should law enforcement seize and search a person's cellphone when a person is arrested?

In Riley V. California, David Leon Riley was arrested in 2009 on charges of unlawful possession of concealed firearms. Police officers seized Riley's phone and searched through his messages, contacts, videos, and photographs. Based in part on the data stored on Riley's phone, the officers charged him with an unrelated, gang-involved shooting that had taken place several weeks prior to his arrest. At trial, a jury convicted Riley and sentenced him to 15 years to life in prison.

Riley's attorney attempted to suppress the cellphone evidence, arguing that the search violated his client's Fourth Amendment rights. The California Court of Appeal rejected this argument, holding that the search was constitutionally permissible.

Riley's conviction was affirmed.

Supreme Court Review

The justices considered whether a search after an arrest is justified by the interests in officer safety and in preventing evidence destruction. Generally, courts have ruled that the police are permitted to search an arrestee's person and area near the arrestee for weapons that could put the officer at risk and to preserve evidence without first obtaining a warrant.

However, the Supreme Court reasoned that these previous decisions did not cover data stored on cellphones because the data does not present a risk to the officer's safety.

According to the court, "Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee's person." Today, "many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives."

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the unanimous opinion. The Chief Justice explained that analogizing a search of data on the cell phone to a search of physical items is akin to "saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon. Both are ways of getting from Point A to Point B but little else justified lumping them together."

The justices agreed with Riley's position that personal, private information stored in an arrestee's cellphone cannot be used as a weapon against the searching officer, nor facilitate an arrestee's escape. Moreover, an individual has a reasonable expectation that his or her digitally stored data remains private

Thus, a search of one's cellphone generally does not qualify for an exception to the warrant requirement mandated by the Fourth Amendment.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court ruled that if the police want to search your cell phone, the answer is simple: "Get a warrant."

What Does This Decision Mean?

This decision is a stunning victory for individual privacy rights. As modern technology allows us to move vast amounts of private information in a convenient, easy to carry device, we should be able to expect a reasonable amount of privacy over the information stored in that device.

The court's unanimous decision makes it perfectly clear to law enforcement agencies that warrantless searches of your cellphone will not be tolerated. In fact, shortly after the decision was publicized, chiefs of police and county sheriffs across California and the country immediately issued directives to their staffs updating policy procedures regarding cellphone searches.

What Does Wallin & Klarich Think?

The Framers of the Constitution were rightfully concerned about how much government intrusion into our private lives could be excused in defense of a legitimate and compelling government interest; namely, public safety.

The whole point in adopting the Fourth Amendment was to prevent generalized types of searches that the Framer's despised.

Our Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich commend the United States Supreme Court on this historic and long overdue decision to protect the rights of ordinary citizens from an unlawful invasion of their private information.

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