New and evolving technology often leads to novel of legal issues for the courts to address. In 2014, the United States Supreme Court addressed one such issue in the case of Riley v. California. The issue at hand was whether or not law enforcement could search a suspect's cell phone without a warrant.
Riley was actually a consolidation of two cases where the police had searched a suspect's phone without first getting a warrant. In analyzing the case, the Supreme Court stated that, under the Fourth Amendment, generally a warrant is required in order to conduct a search. The court further stated that "[i]n the absence of a warrant, a search is reasonable only if it falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement." One warrant exception that has been recognized is the search incident to arrest exception. It was this exception that had been used to justify the searches in both of the Riley cases. To determine if cell phone data fell into the search incident to arrest exception, the court looked at "the degree to which [the search] intrudes upon an individual's privacy and . . . the degree to which [the search] is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests."
One of the main rationales for allowing searches incident to arrest is to ensure that the suspect is not carrying a weapon that could be used on officers or others at the arrest scene. The court pointed out that the data stored on a cell phone cannot be used as a weapon. The court did note that, though there may be certain circumstances where information on the phone may be of immediate use to officers --such as to see if any accomplices are on the way to the scene-- these circumstances were "better addressed through consideration of case-specific exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as the one for exigent circumstances."
The other main rationale for searches incident to arrest is to prevent the destruction of evidence. The court stated that taking the cell phone away from the suspect prevents him or her from deleting anything of value. There are other methods by which data can become inaccessible either because it is erased from the phone remotely or because the phone is encrypted. However, the court reasoned that most phones are locked and encrypted so most times law enforcement would need to get a password regardless. Moreover, the court stated that even if remote wiping is a threat, there are methods to prevent this. In addition, the officers wouldn't likely search the phone right away anyway as they have other things to take care of such as transport the suspect to jail. This would leave the phone vulnerable to data deletion, even if the court was to allow the search. The court also stated that to the extent that an unusual situation pops up, an exception such as exigent circumstances may apply.
Additionally, the court noted that searching a cell phone is not like a physical search as cell phones can store an immense amount of data, including a lot of private information. The court also pointed out that much of the data is not stored on the phone but rather in the "cloud." The court stated that searching data stored on a cloud would be akin to "finding a key in a suspect's pocket and arguing that it allowed law enforcement to unlock and search a house" and that a search incident to arrest would not extend to data stored elsewhere.
Ultimately, the court held that for the aforementioned reasons, searching a cell phone did not fall into the search incident to arrest exception and law enforcement would have to get a warrant to look at the contents of a suspect's phone.
If you or a loved one has been arrested, please do not hesitate to contact attorney Doug Murphy today.