By Marilyn Miller
The United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously recently that police can not search the contents of a cellphone seized during an arrest, unless they get a
warrant. The Court held that such warrantless searches violate the Fourth Amendment which prohibits the Government from engaging in unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Court reasoned that cellphones are minicomputers that hold vast amounts of personal data. Such devices are different from physical objects police are allowed to seize without a warrant in searches incident to arrest.
In the two cases addressed by the Supreme Court, Riley v. California attracted the most scrutiny. Riley was stopped by police for expired registration tags and it was determined that his license was suspended. In such a situation, police may legally search a person as well as the area within his immediate control without probable cause when a search is “incident to arrest”. This exception arises to ensure the safety of the officer and to prevent the possible destruction of evidence of crime.
Police then searched Riley incident to his arrest and seized his cellphone from his pocket. Thereafter, the police examined the contents of the phone and found evidence of Riley’s membership in a street gang. This evidence lead to additional charges filed in connection with an earlier shooting.
In this case, it was apparent that the warrantless exception to searches did not apply. It was not needed to protect the officer or to preserve evidence. The Court noted the distinguishing features of the modern cellphone are their immense storage capacity and the personal information they contain in digital format. The Court held that it is just this kind of private information the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect.
The result in Riley was that the search was illegal and the evidence obtained was excluded from the jury’s consideration under the Exclusionary Rule. The exclusion of this kind of evidence would usually result in making it impossible for the Government to prove the charges which was the outcome of Riley’s case as to the gang-related charges. The only evidence left against Riley was the driving while license suspended charge which could be pursued.
Given the great prevalence of cellphones today, this case has particular significance to individuals charged with serious criminal offenses including driving under the influence or DUI where the suspect is carrying a cellphone which may be accessible to police who are conducting a search upon the arrest of that person.