Supreme Court on Cell-Phone Searches: 3 Things You Should Know

By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 25, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court laid down the law on warrantless cell-phone searches today, giving mobile users slightly more privacy when arrested.

The High Court unanimously held that warrantless cell-phone searches upon arrest are generally not permitted, recognizing how important our phones have become in our everyday lives. As USA Today reports, Chief Justice John Roberts opined that cell phones are so integral to daily life that Martians "might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy."

Essential or not, here are three things you should know about the Supreme Court's ruling on warrantless cell-phone searches:

1. It Settles the Issue of Warrantless Cell-Phone Searches Incident to Arrest.

The Supreme Court looked at two separate cases, one from California and the other from Maryland, which reached opposite conclusions about whether police could, without a warrant, look at the data on a cell phone seized from an arrestee.

Coming down on the side of privacy, the High Court determined that police could not search cell phones incident to arrest without a warrant, thus settling the disagreement among state and federal courts.

2. Cell Phones Can Still Be Seized Upon Arrest.

The Supreme Court's 9-0 ruling in Riley v. California does not change the ability of police to legally seize a cell phone from a suspect who's been arrested.

A police officer is still legally permitted to search an arrestee, without a warrant, and can seize any items which could potentially pose a threat to officer safety or contain evidence of a crime. This is known as a "search incident to arrest." Police may still search and seize items within the area of a suspect's immediate control, including a cell phone.

  • Know someone who has been arrested or charged with a crime? Get in touch with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney in your area today.

3. There Are Still Warrantless Search Exceptions.

The Supreme Court noted that warrantless cell-phone searches after arrest are generally not permitted. However, there will always be exceptions based on the particulars of each case that may allow officers to search a suspect's mobile device without a warrant.

For example, warrantless cell-phone searches performed under "exigent circumstances" (i.e., a bombing suspect who is texting an accomplice) may be legal. This requires a court to examine the circumstances, as opposed to making a cell-phone search legal simply by dint of a suspect's arrest.

The Riley decision certainly strengthens the rights of cell-phone users, but the Supreme Court hasn't hamstrung officers from investigating just yet.

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