Friday, June 27, 2014

Unanimous SCOTUS: Cops Need Warrant to Search Cell Phone

In a surprising blow to law enforcement throughout the U.S., the U.S Supreme Court this week unanimously ruled that Americans have a Constitutional expectation of privacy in the content of their cell phones, thus triggering the requirement for a warrant before searching same.  In Riley v. California and companion federal case United States v. Wurie, the Supreme Court held that digital information in cell phones was protected by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and thus subject to the warrant requirement of that amendment.  The governments argued that such evidence was permissible to be obtained without a warrant as fruits of a search incident to lawful arrest, a long-held judicial exception to the warrant requirement established in Chimel v. California.  However, the Supreme Court declined to liken digital information contained within a cell phone to the contents of a cigarette case, per the government's cited precedent of the more recent decision in U.S. v. Robinson.  Simply put, the Court found the expectation of privacy in the contents of one's cell phone to be important and without reasonable question.

It is important to note that the Court did not reach the question/situation of exigent circumstances, which could be an identifiable exception to the warrant requirement with respect to cell phones.  Also, the Court did not find any objection in seizing a cell phone and otherwise guarding its contents until a warrant could be obtained, provided probable cause existed re the phone's contents.  Therefore, while the police are required to get a warrant before they examine what's in your phone, they can seize/control your phone while they are waiting to obtain a warrant.

This is just one of many legal issues relevant to the defense of a criminal charge, and why it is important to have knowledgeable and experienced legal representation.

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