Supreme Ct. Debates Cell-Phone Searches Upon Arrest

By Brett Snider, Esq. on April 29, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide whether cell phones can be searched upon arrest, potentially ending a pivotal legal disagreement in federal and state courts.

Two cases are before the High Court today: one in which a cell phone searche following arrest was upheld, and one in which a warrantless cell phone searches was deemed improper. Opponents of these warrantless cell phone searches argue there is no danger to officer safety or risk of losing evidence when a cell phone is seized, so officers should simply obtain a warrant to search them, reports The Associated Press.

Which way will the Supreme Court lean?

2 Cases, Different Outcomes

The two cases in front of the Supreme Court are Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie. The Riley case is on appeal from the California Court of Appeal, which determined that officers could legitimately search an arrestee's smartphone for evidence of a crime. The other case is on appeal from the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which stated that officers could not legally search an arrestee's flip phone.

In both cases, lawyers cited case precedent in making their arguments. But the issue lies in dealing with cell phone technology.

Is a Cell Phone More Like a Purse or a Computer?

Riley was decided by the California appellate court because the California Supreme Court had already ruled in 2011 that cell phones could be searched as part of a lawful search incident to arrest. In the 2011 case, California's High Court noted that while it would be illegal to open a locked trunk without a warrant, searching a cell phone found on the defendant's person after arrest was no different than searching his or her clothes or wallet.

The Wurie court disagreed, finding that officers have plenty of time to obtain a warrant to search a cell phone, and that there is no danger to officer safety in leaving a cell phone unsearched. There is also less worry that data will disappear from a phone long after arrest.

Computers, on the other hand, typically require warrants in order to be legally searched. Smartphones today carry more computing power than many PCs of the last decade, a reasoning which led Canada's Supreme Court to give mobile phones the same protection as computers.

The U.S. Supreme Court will take these privacy and technological considerations in mind when deciding these opposing cell phone search cases. Following today's arguments, the Court's ruling is expected sometime this summer.

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