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Cell phone searches require a warrant under the Fourth Amendment, Supreme Court rules in Riley v. California

The Supreme Court ruled in Riley v. California that a warrant is required to search a defendant’s cell phone, incident to arrest. The 4th Amendment is having a hard time keeping up with quickly advancing technology. Virtually everyone carries a cell phone on their bodies today, and these phones hold much more information than just call logs. The Supreme Court has upheld this sentiment, making a distinction between cell phones and other items that someone may carry around with them, saying that today’s mobile devices are “in fact minicomputers that have the capacity to be used as telephones.” This advancement in technology has raised questions about where the information stored on people’s cell phones falls within the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Supreme Court has held that cellphones are protected from warrantless searches, even incident to arrest. So much of an individual’s personal life is available on their mobile device that there needs to be the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search. Cellphones contain private information that people might not otherwise carry on themselves, and the information is worth of the protection of the 4th Amendment.

In Riley v. California, the defendant’s cell phone was searched incident to arrest for possession of firearms. Defendant’s cell phone had pictures of defendant making gang signs and other gang indicia. Instead of just being indicted for the possession of firearms, defendant was also indicted for separate charges of shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder, and assault with a semi-automatic firearm, all charges stemming from what was discovered on defendant’s cell phone. The Supreme Court unanimously held that the search of defendant’s cell phone violated defendant’s 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. The Robinson warrantless search exception following an arrest exists for the purposes of protecting officer safety and preserving evidence, neither of which is at issue in the search of digital data. Police officers have the ability to preserve evidence while awaiting a warrant simply by disconnecting the phone from the network and holding it until a warrant is secured.

Another case from our own backyard in Massachusetts, United States v. Wurie, helped shape the contours of 4th Amendment protections for warrantless cell phone searches. Defendant’s cell phone was searched while he was arrested for distributing crack cocaine, and the information retrieved by looking through the phone lead police to more drugs, a firearm, and ammunition. The Supreme Court again held that the warrantless search of the defendant’s cell phone did not fall into the Robinson exception: there was no fear of officer safety, and no reason to fear the destruction of evidence contained in the cell phone.

Cell phones are invaluable tools for police to obtain information about a crime, as they contain so much information about a person’s life. However, this personal information is exactly what the 4th Amendment intends to protect from warrantless search. The digital age is transforming the expectation of privacy, but so long as the expectation of privacy is reasonable, it will be protected by the 4th Amendment.

For further information about technology and the 4th Amendment, read about the Supreme Court’s ruling on whether GPS tracking violates the 4th Amendment.

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