Can a police officer search the contents of your cell phone when you are under arrest? Today in a unanimous decision the Supreme Court, said a resounding NO! The police must obtain a search warrant before searching the contents of a cell phone seized as part of a search incident to an arrest.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution says “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall be issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized”. Warrants, under the Fourth amendment, are required in in most cases of search and seizure unless there is an exception. One such exception is a search incident to an arrest. In that case the police may examine the person, the contents of their pockets and other things found on them at the time of arrest.
In the Riley case, a detective looked through the defendant’s cell phone contents and found evidence of other criminal activity which was used to add charges and enhance a potential sentence. The question then became, is the search of a cell phone, under these circumstances, without a warrant , an impermissible violation of the Petitioner’s rights under the Fourth Amendment?
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts noted that exceptions that allowed search incident to an arrest did not apply in this case, those of officer safety and the destruction of evidence. Since the defendant was already in custody, as was the phone, those rationales did not apply. The court then turned to the second issue of privacy. The Justice noted that many people now carry on their person cell phones capable of immense storage capacity. Beyond the quantity of information that they can potentially contain, they also have the capacity for email, photos, voice recordings, texts and document storage. Such vast amounts of information paint a picture of the personal life of a person to the extent that an overzealous police officer could engage in the proverbial “fishing expedition” looking for potential evidence linking anyone to anything. Such snooping by the authorities was deemed impermissible invasion of one’s privacy. As Justice Roberts noted in his opinion, ”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 what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple-get a warrant.”