Do the Police Need a Warrant to Search a Cell Phone?

Supreme Court: Police Need a Warrant to Search Cell Phones (Most of the Time)

Generally, without a search warrant, the police may not search a cell phone seized during an arrest. Only specific exceptions to the Fourth Amendment will allow for a cell phone search without a search warrant. One such well-recognized exception is the search incident to a lawful arrest. If you are arrested, you will be searched for officer safety and preservation of evidence. This search is limited to the area within your immediate control; things on your person. If you are not yet secured by way of handcuffs or a police vehicle, then anything within your arm’s reach may also be searched, including your vehicle.

In the past, the state has argued that because your cell phone may contain evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and it is within your possession or arms reach during an arrest, then they may search it without a search warrant. However, in Riley v. California, the United States Supreme Court recognized that cell phones today are like computers, housing your private personal, financial, and occupational information. As such, the Court recognized you have a greater privacy interest in your cell phone than most other things and thus are granted greater Fourth Amendment protections. The decision was a unanimous opinion by the Supreme Court.

Absent special circumstances, police need a warrant to search cell phones of individuals who have been arrested. The U.S. Supreme Court made this unanimous ruling in 2014 after taking two cases involving cell phone searches: Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie. The unanimous decisions, handed down together, stand for the singular proposition that, barring exigent circumstances, officers must have a warrants to search cell phones. However, the Court’s opinion is not one that grants protection for the contents of a phone under all circumstances.

Unreasonable Search and Seizure

The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures and sets forth the general warrant requirement for searches. But a warrantless search is reasonable if it falls within a specific exception to Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. One of those exceptions allows for a warrantless search to be conducted pursuant to a lawful arrest. When a person is lawfully arrested, the police are allowed to search the person’s body or property near the arrestee. The justification for this search is derived from the interests of the officers’ safety and to prevent any possible destruction of evidence.

warrant to search cell phone

Searches of Cell Phones

The issue in both cases was “whether the police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.” In Riley v. California, Riley was driving with a suspended license, pulled over, and subsequently arrested on weapons charges. Once Riley was arrested, the officers looked through the text messages, contacts, and videos on his cell phone. Based in part on the information that was found, Riley was convicted and received a 15-year prison sentence. Riley moved to suppress the evidence the police obtained from his cell phone. The trial court denied his motion and the California Court of Appeals affirmed.

In United States v. Wurie, the defendant was arrested based on a belief that the defendant had been involved in a drug sale. The police seized two cell phones from his person and used information from his cell phones to secure a search warrant for his home, where they found incriminating evidence. Wurie also moved to suppress this evidence. The District Court denied the motion and Wurie was convicted.

The Supreme Court’s Unanimous Decision on Cell Phone Searches

The Supreme Court, acknowledging the vast amounts of information stored on cell phones today, concluded that a warrantless search of a cell phone was invasive of a person’s privacy. The Supreme Court rejected the government’s contention that a search of all data stored on a cell phone is “materially indistinguishable” from searches of physical items found on an arrestee’s person. Physical items found on a person, at the time of the arrest, generally are subject to search. The Court said that comparison was “like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon … [b]oth are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together.”

Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement

Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Roberts stated that absent an exigency, cell phone searches cannot be justified as a means to protect officers from harm, or to prevent the destruction of evidence. This test balances the government’s interests against the privacy interests. The Court rejected the notion that a cell phone was comparable to other items found on a person’s body, such as a wallet, noting, “[c]ell phones differ in both a quantitative and qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.”

Despite the unanimous decision, the opinion does not stand for the proposition that officers always need a warrant to search a cell phone. The Court recognized a variety of exigent circumstances under which officers may not need a warrant. These include situations where a suspect is feared to be texting an accomplice who might pose a risk to the officers or others, or a child kidnapper whose cell phone might contain evidence of where the child is.

If the police have searched or seized your cell phone, or you have had any property searched or seized, contact a Fort Worth criminal defense attorney at Varghese Summersett PLLC.

Phone or Virtual Consultation
(817) 203-2220