The Supreme Court of the United States changes the rules of a search incident to arrest by requiring a warrant before the police can conduct a cell phone search after an arrest. The rule is loud and clear and should be unmistakable to police. “Get a warrant,” if you want to search the contents of a cell phone! This is, no doubt, a very important ruling addressing a very important issue on the Fourth Amendment battlefield. Search and seizure jurisprudence has been effected in a way that protects an arrestee’s privacy interest in the vast amounts of data contained in the smartphone on his person at the time of an arrest. The Court has created a “Get a Warrant” rule that police must follow before they can search the contents of a cell phone. This new rule was created in it’s decision, Riley v. California.
Prior Case Law on Search Incident to Arrest
Before Riley v. California, the important cases pertaining to a search incident to arrest were the following:
- United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 (1977)
- United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973)
- Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009)
I discuss the above cases in Episode 003 of this podcast. In that show, I summarized a decision by the Illinois Supreme Court that authorized the police to search any luggage or bags being carried by a person as a search incident to arrest. You can listen to that episode as well. The array of prior cases left plenty of room for both sides to make logical arguments. Law enforcement argued that Robinson clearly allowed a thorough search of everything a person was carrying when they are arrested. If a person has a phone on them at the time of an arrest. It is fair game for a search. The defense bar argued, that Gant prevented a thorough search of a car a person was driving at the time of an arrest. This indicates a clear respect for some privacy even after an arrest. There is a greater privacy interest in the contents of a cell phone than the entire contents of any car.
The Precise Issue in Riley v. California
The exact issue before the court was…
“Whether the Police May, without a Warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been lawfully arrested.”
The SCOTUS Ruling on a Cell Phone Search After an Arrest
Essentially the Court said that even after an arrest a person maintains a privacy interest in the contents of their cell phone. The cell phone of today is unlike any other object that a person could be carrying. These phones are not phones at all but computers. A phone being carried today by a person contains more information than that person has in their entire house. These are some of the functions, abilities and ways phones are used:
- Video Players
- Tape Recorders
- Data Storage
- Medical Information Storage
- Financial Data Storage
- And Much Much More.
Final Words of Caution
This is most likely not an indication of a more liberal court on search & seizure. The decision does not appear to alter the Fourth Amendment landscape on searches incident to arrest, except when it comes to a cell phone search after an arrest. The Court was clear to point out that, although the cell phone data could not be accessed or searched, the physical phone itself could be examined. Police maintain an interest in protecting themselves after and during an arrest. Additionally, the police may still move to prevent the destruction of evidence. This means the phones may still be physically inspected the way any other object would be if found on a person being taken into custody.