United State Supreme Court Holds Police May Not Conduct Warrantless Searches Of Cell Phones Belonging To Arrestees

Late last year, this blog discussed a landmark opinion by the Maryland Court of Appeals in the case of Sinclair v. State of Maryland. In that case, that Court held that a police officer who has lawfully arrested an individual may conduct a search of that individual’s cellular phone under an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s general requirement that law enforcement obtain a warrant prior to conducting any search.

Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court issued its own opinion addressing the same issue in Riley v. California, holding, contrary to the Maryland Court of Appeals, that police cannot search arrestees’ cellphones without a warrant. This ruling has been hailed as a watershed moment by digital rights and privacy activists by setting a precedent that favors privacy.

Specifics of the Case
In Riley, the defendant, David L. Riley, was pulled over for a traffic violation in San Diego in 2009. During a search of Riley’s vehicle, police found loaded guns. Following this discovery, Riley was placed under arrest and searched, which revealed items associated with the “Bloods” street gang. Riley’s smartphone was also seized and police were able to access information on the phone that connected Riley to the street gang and a prior shooting. At trial, the smartphone evidence was used to convict Riley and he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. On appeal, the California Court of Appeal affirmed Riley’s conviction.

Generally speaking, law enforcement officers are permitted to search arrestees without a warrant upon apprehension in the interest of officer safety and evidence preservation purposes. This exception to the warrant requirement is known as a “search incident to arrest.” It was this exception that the State of California relied upon to argue that the officers had the right to search Riley’s phone without a warrant. The Supreme Court didn’t buy this argument.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice John Roberts held that that searching a cellphone without a warrant constitutes a different, deeper privacy intrusion and that such a search serves neither the interests of protecting officer safety or evidence. The State argued that cellphones should not be treated differently from other objects found on an arrestee’s person, such as a wallet. Rejecting this argument, Chief Justice Roberts opined that comparing a cellphone to a wallet “is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon. Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together.”

Chief Justice Roberts concluded, “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…Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple–get a warrant.”

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The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel Alexander, LLC have extensive experience defending the Constitutional rights of individuals that have been charged with a crime. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel Alexander, LLC today.

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