Riley v. California: Search Warrants for Cell Phones

In June of this year, the United States Supreme Court in Riley v. California, 134 S.Ct. 999 (2014), unanimously held that search of a cell/smart phone requires a warrant. The Court affirmed that 4th amendment protections regarding privacy apply to cell/smart phones and that search of a cell phone is not a reasonable search incident to an arrest. Prior case law held that a search of cell phones was a lawful search incident to an arrest because law enforcement that had probable cause could search individuals for weapons for the officer's safety. In addition, cell phones potentially contained evidence that required preservation. However, in Riley the Court held that a cell phone is not a weapon and there is only a remote possibility that information on the phone can be destroyed remotely. The appeals leading up to the decision were related to law enforcement obtaining massive amounts of information which are now stored on cell/smart phones and using that information. The Court held "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," the ruling said. "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." Law enforcement can of course circumvent the warrant requirement by obtaining the owner's consent. Courts are already applying Riley. Indeed, a judge in Brooklyn suppressed evidence that allegedly would have shown that a defendant photographed a child sex crime victim during a trial.

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