US Supreme Court rules on warrantless cellphone searches

The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided that police officers must generally first obtain a warrant before searching an arrestee’s cellphone.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects us from "unreasonable searches and seizures." As a general rule, before law enforcement officers may conduct a search, they must obtain a warrant. As with any rule, there are exceptions - one of which is that police officers may conduct a search incident to arrest.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases regarding warrantless cellphone searches conducted incident to arrest. In a unanimous decision, the high court determined that, in most circumstances, law enforcement officers are required to obtain a warrant before searching the cellphone of an arrestee.

Two cases before the high court

The U.S. Supreme Court issued one decision to address the issue posed by both cases.

Riley v. California - the first case before the court - involved the search of an arrestee's smartphone. Riley was originally stopped by police officers for a routine traffic violation. His smartphone was later searched and officers uncovered evidence that implied Riley had participated in a shooting that had taken place weeks before. They also found data that suggested he was involved in a gang.

As a result, Riley was convicted of attempted murder and he was sentenced to 15 years to life in jail.

U.S. v. Wurie - the second case before the court - involved the search of a more basic flip phone. Police officers determined the location of Wurie's residence based on information found in the phone. Consequently, they obtained a warrant to search the home and uncovered evidence that led to Wurie's conviction on firearm and drug charges.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision

In the high court's decision, Chief Justice John Roberts determined that police officers must generally first obtain a warrant before searching the contents of an arrestee's cellphone.

He concluded that the justification allowing warrantless searches incident to arrest - determined in Chimel v. California - was not sufficient in the case of a cellphone. The Chief Justice noted that information stored on a cellphone does not pose a risk of harm to law enforcement officers. In addition, he concluded that the problem of evidence on the phone being deleted remotely does not appear to be "prevalent." He noted that law enforcement officers also have techniques they can use to prevent such destruction of evidence.

If you are facing criminal charges in Alabama, you will want to ensure a strong defense is established on your behalf. Part of mounting a robust defense is making certain improper evidence is not admitted against you. It is a good idea to discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure your interests are protected.

Keywords: U.S. Supreme Court, cellphones, warrants, searches