The Supreme Court of the United States said Wednesday that police officers must have a warrant before searching the cell phone contents of an individual under arrest.
In a unanimous ruling announced early Wednesday, the high court settled two cases surrounding instances in which law enforcement officials scoured the mobile phones of suspects in custody and then used information contained therein to pursue further charges.
“The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested,” the Supreme Court ruled.
“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” the court continued. “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 the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant.”
Orin Kerr, a Georgetown University law professor who focuses primarily on computer cases, wrote Wednesday morning on his Washington Post-hosted blog that the court’s decision was “a big win for digital privacy.”
“[W]ow, what a day at the Supreme Court,” tweeted Electronic Freedom Foundation special counsel Marcia Hoffman, whose group entered a brief in the case ahead of Wednesday’s ruling. “Wow. You go, Chief Justice Roberts,” she wrote.
I’m a little slow to the party from the West Coast here, but wow, what a day at the Supreme Court.
— Marcia Hofmann (@marciahofmann) June 25, 2014
SCOTUS: cops need a warrant to search a cell phone seized incident to arrest. http://t.co/SUDYjNslBI Wow. You go, Chief Justice Roberts.
— Marcia Hofmann (@marciahofmann) June 25, 2014
Although past events have provided for instances in which it could be argued that law enforcement office may want to search cell phones upon arresting a person in order to preserve evidence or protect their own safety, the court suggested in this week’s ruling that the privacy implications involved with scouring in essence pocket-sized computers cannot be ignored.
“Law enforcement officers remain free to examine the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon — say, to determine whether there is a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case. Once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, however, data on the phone can endanger no one,” the ruling reads in part.
“The United States and California both suggest that a search of cell phone data might help ensure officer safety in more indirect ways, for example by alerting officers that confederates of the arrestee are headed to the scene,” the court continued, “There is undoubtedly a strong government interest in warning officers about such possibilities, but neither the United States nor California offers evidence to suggest that their concerns are based on actual experience.”
The high court’s decision stems from two cases in which individuals received extended prison sentences due to convictions that may not have been possible had police avoided their respective cell phones to gather evidence. In both instances, a warrant was absent.
In one case, David Riley v California, police stopped the defendant for a minor traffic violation and then, upon inspecting his cell phone without a warrant, came across clues that led them to believe he was involved in a criminal gang. From there, a detective “went through” Riley’s phone “looking for evidence, because . . . gang members will often video themselves with guns or take pictures of themselves with the guns,” the court cited from earlier testimony. As a result of the evidence found on Riley’s phone, he was ultimately charged in connection with a shooting unrelated to the traffic violation, including counts of firing at an occupied vehicle, assault with a semiautomatic firearm and attempted murder. His status as a gang member — revealed through the warrantless search — allowed prosecutors to successfully pursue an enhanced sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
In the matter of Brima Wurie v California, that individual was sentenced to 262 months in prison after police seized his phone during an arrest for an attempted drug deal and traced a contact saved on his device with the label “My Home” back to his residence where narcotics and drugs were then seized.
After reviewing three high court precedents concerning the search of items found on individuals being placed under arrest, SCOTUS said scouring the contents of a cell phone is a matter that must be authorized by a warrant.
“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” the court acknowledged. “Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost. Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest. Our cases have historically recognized that the warrant requirement is ‘an important working part of our machinery of government,’ not merely ‘an inconvenience to be somehow “weighed” against the claims of police efficiency.’”
“In addition, although the search incident to arrest exception does not apply to cell phones, the continued availability of the exigent circumstances exception may give law enforcement a justification for a warrantless search in particular cases,” the court continued.