Journal of Information & Privacy Law

SCOTUS is Unanimous – Police Must Have a Search Warrant to Search Data on a Cell Phone

By Meredith Mays Espino, Solicitation Editor on Thursday, June 26th, 2014
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In a rare unanimous decision on June 25, 2014, the Court, in Riley v. California, determined that a police officer generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cellphone seized from an individual under arrest.  Chief Justice Roberts, delivering the opinion, wrote that “modern cell phones . . . are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude that they were an important feature of the human anatomy.”

Vast amounts of data about an individual can be found on our cell phones.  On the other hand, officers must be allowed to protect themselves from harm.  Therefore, the Court offered that a balance be struck between personal privacy and officer safety.

The Court declined to extend U.S. v. Robinson, which found that officers may search a person incident to arrest to prevent destruction of evidence and for the safety of officers.  Searches were limited in later years, via U.S. v. Chadwick, to “personal property . . . immediately associated with the person of the arrestee.”   In the present case, the Court found that searching data on a cell phone was not analogous to the brief, physical search as was the case on Robinson nor is the Chadwick rule applicable to cell phones.

The Court did provide that a warrant is not needed when there are specific exceptions.  An officer may still search the physical phone to determine if it may be used as a weapon.  An officer may also search if there is an exigent circumstance that puts the officer in danger.  Exigent circumstances may also include imminent danger of the data on a phone being erased, “to pursue a fleeing suspect, and to assist persons who are seriously injured or are threatened with imminent injury.”  However, this does not mean that cell phones may be searched just in case there is such an exigent circumstance.

Further, the Court found that the off-chance of the data being wiped from the phone or the phone being encrypted is not an exigent circumstance allowing for a warrantless search.  To secure the phone while waiting for a warrant, an officer may disconnect the phone from the network by turning the phone off, removing the battery, or using a Faraday bag (a bag made of aluminum foil that prevents radio waves from reaching the phone).  Or, if an officer finds an unlocked phone during a search, the officer may disable the locking feature on the phone.

The Court recognized that the cell phones of today contain so much more personal information than was physically possible in prior cases.  Cell phones also provide a means of obtaining information stored elsewhere.  A search of a cell phone is so much more of an invasion of privacy than in prior cases.  Search of cell phones must have a significantly higher burden for searches than the cigarette pack of Robinson.  Therefore, unless there is an aforementioned exigent circumstance, a warrant is required before an officer may search data on a cell phone.

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