United States Supreme Court Holds Police “Generally May Not” Search Information of Cell Phone Seized from Arrestee

In Riley v. California, decided June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court examined how the ‘search incident to arrest’ doctrine applies to information stored in cellular phone.* The Court first explained that “[d]igital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape.”

Moving on to concerns that evidence might be destroyed, the Court found that “once law enforcement officers have secured a cell phone, there is no longer any risk that the arrestee himself will be able to delete incriminating data from the phone.” While the government had argued that a third party could remotely erase the data or security features on the phone could encrypt the contents, the Court concluded that neither problem was “prevalent” and could be addressed in other ways – such as removing the phone’s battery or storing the phone in a room which blocks radio waves. In any event, “[i]f the police are truly confronted with a ‘now or never’ situation, – for example, circumstances suggesting that a defendant’s phone will be the target of an imminent remote-wipe attempt – they may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to search the phone immediately.”

The Court also discussed how cell phones could store many different types of personal data and the amount of storage space meant that the “sum of an individual’s life” could be reconstructed through all of that information. Moreover, this was different than information stored on paper which a person was not likely to always be carrying around.

I highly recommend reading the entire Opinion but will leave you with its closing paragraph:

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.

* The Court also stated that labeling a search incident to arrest as an “exception” to the warrant requirement was “something of misnomer,” as these searches “occur with far greater frequency than searches conducted pursuant to a warrant.”