U.S. Supreme Court Considers Warrantless Cell Phone Searches

Can police search a cellphone without a search warrant under the “incident to arrest” exception to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to tackle this question and has heard oral arguments involving an issue that has divided state and federal courts.

At the heart of the matter is whether police have the right to search the contents of a cell phone if they deem that doing so will secure key evidence and keep it from being destroyed. While it is legal for an officer to conduct a warrantless search for items on an arrestee’s person or in an area that a person can access at the time of their arrest, there has been no clear-cut ruling whether an officer needs a search warrant before searching information on a cell phone.

Smartphones have become ubiquitous (two-thirds of Americans carry them) and are, for all intents and purposes, mobile computers. The courts have consistently ruled that it is illegal to search a home computer without a warrant, so the question remains whether a cellphone can be classified as a computer-like device and, if so, would law enforcement still have the right to search it incidental to arrest?

The Supreme Court is weighing in to resolve a judicial split on the matter. In Riley v. California, trial and appellate courts found that searching a suspect’s cell phone was proper, finding that it was “immediately associated” with the arrestee. In another case, United States v. Wurie, the First Circuit Court of Appeals found that the warrantless search of a cell phone was improper because the phone’s capacity to store sensitive information made it a more intrusive search than was previously justified under the exception.

Last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court broke legal ground by ruling that police can’t use a suspect’s cellphone to track his location without a warrant. The court stated that New Jersey citizens didn’t forfeit their privacy rights just because they shared their data with a mobile provider.

The implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case will be huge. Will the Court rule on the side of privacy advocates or will it side with law enforcement? The criminal defense attorneys at Lubiner, Schmidt & Palumbo in New Jersey will be following this case with great interest. If you have questions about your legal rights in a criminal investigation, contact us at (888) 847-2529 or reach out to us online to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced criminal defense attorneys.