Law Clarified on Cell Phone Searches
The First Story:
David Leon Riley was stopped for driving with expired registration tags and arrested after a search of his car revealed concealed and loaded firearms. Upon his arrest, the officer seized and searched the contents of Riley’s cell phone. At the station, a detective also browsed through Riley’s cell phone. Based upon the information found on his phone, Riley was connected to an earlier shooting and charged with firing at an occupied vehicle, assault with a semi-automatic firearm and attempted murder. Riley moved to suppress the evidence obtained from his cell phone.
The Second Story:
Brima Wurie was arrested after officers observed Wurie make an apparent drug sale from his car. At the station, the officers seized Wurie’s flip phone and found a phone number that they traced to Wurie’s apartment. The officers secured a search warrant for the apartment and found drugs and firearms. Wurie moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of his apartment arguing the evidence “was the fruit of an unconstitutional search of his phone.”
When the police seizes a cell phone from an individual who is under arrest, may an officer conduct a warrantless search of the information on the phone?
In a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, (Riley v. California (June 25, 2014) No. 13-132 and No. 13-212 573 U.S. ___), the court holds a warrant is required before searching the digital contents of a cell phone seized incident to an arrest. The court also recognizes that in exceptional circumstances the warrant requirement may be waived if the “warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
Warrantless searches exist only in exceptional circumstances where the need for effective law enforcement overrides an individual’s privacy rights. A warrantless search during an arrest is considered reasonable to protect the officer’s safety, prevent the arrestee’s escape or destruction of evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court states that the digital contents of a cell phone cannot be used as a weapon to harm the officer or to help the arrestee escape. Also, once the officer secures the cell phone, there is no real danger of the evidence being destroyed. Therefore, the court concludes that generally a warrant is required to search cell phones.