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

June 25, 2014 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

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.”

New York Court of Appeals Invalidates Warrant Which Authorized Search of All Persons Present at the Time of its Execution

April 2, 2010 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

In People v. Mothersell, the Court of Appeals addressed the legality of a warrant which authorized the search of all persons present at the time of its execution.  In reversing the lower courts and ordering the indictment dismissed, the Court reiterated that an all-persons-present warrant should only issue after a showing of significant justification.

While The Fourth Amendment to the Federal Constitution as made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, and Article I, Section 12 of our New York State Constitution requires that warrants “particularly describ[e] . . . the persons . . . to be seized,” New York States CPL 690.15 (2) states that “[a] search warrant which directs a search of a designated or described place, premises or vehicle, may also direct a search of any person present thereat or therein[.]”

In People v Nieves, 36 NY2d 396 (1975), the Court reasoned that there could be circumstances in which a showing of probable cause to search a place would also afford probable cause to infer that everyone present at the place had upon their persons the items specified in the warrant, and thus, that [CPL 690.15] was capable of application without constitutional offense.  However, the Court described the “severely limited” circumstances which would justify such a warrant, explaining that “[t]he facts made known to the Magistrate and the reasonable inferences to which they give rise, must create a substantial probability that the authorized invasions of privacy will be justified by discovery of the items sought from all persons present when the warrant is executed. If this probability is not present, then each person subject to search must be identified in the warrant and supporting papers by name or sufficient personal description”

But in Mothersell the Court found that no such showing had been made, in the warrant application citing “boilerplate allegations” and a statement by the deponent that, based on her past experience, it is “not uncommon that persons found in the subject residence could reasonably be expected to conceal cocaine.”

Turning to the general concept of an all-persons-present warrant, the Court did not condemn them entirely.  While the Court did note the “utility” of such a warrant, it cautioned that such utility “may not permissibly arise, as it apparently has in practice, from any relaxation of the requirement of probable cause as to each person targeted for
search or seizure.”