The Supreme Court has ruled that police must obtain a search warrant to view information stored on a suspects or an arrestee’s cell phone. The ruling is from a California case where an officer arrested a person for a traffic violation. The officer searched their cell phone and found information that led to the suspect being charged with drug and weapons offenses.
Warrantless searches are usually found to be an unreasonable invasion into citizen’s constitutionally protected privacy. However a warrantless search may be reasonable when it falls within a specified exception to the warrant requirement. The exception that applies here is the search incident to a lawful arrest. When an officer arrests a citizen, the officer may search the general area on or around the suspect. Officers may also search small items that may contain evidence of a crime such as a cigarette pack which could contain drugs. Officers can also search cars in which suspects are driving or riding in provided there is sufficient reason to believe the car may contain evidence. These exceptions protect officer’s safety and prevent suspects or arrestees from destroying evidence.
The court unanimously agreed however, that a search of a cell-phone differs greatly from these types of searches because cell-phones usually contain immense amounts of data that could unintentionally invade a person’s privacy. Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his opinion, “Modern cell phones implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet or a purse.” He added, “Many of these devices are in fact minicomputers” that “could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”
Still just because officers may not have an unimpeded right to search your phone doesn’t mean they cannot ultimately wind up looking through its contents. The ruling made clear only that a warrant will usually be required prior to a search. Additionally, officers may still find that a search is reasonable under yet another exception. If there are circumstances to believe that public safety is at risk or evidence may be lost or destroyed, an officer may have reason to search your phone without a warrant. For now though, the general rule will be no cell phone searches without a prior search warrant.