Cell Phones Are Subject to Warrantless Search

Updated June 27, 2014: The United States Supreme Court has held that police may not search an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant. Riley v California (June 25, 2014, No. 13–132) 2014 US Lexis 4497.

Think about that smart phone with all those personal life details. That same little pandora’s box of potentially damaging evidence. Well, it just got easier for the police to search it in California. The California Supreme Court determined that after police take a cell phone from a suspect during an arrest, they can search the phone’s text messages without a warrant.

As reported on Law.com, the supreme court’s majority in People v Diaz (.pdf) reasoned that U.S. Supreme Court precedents call for cell phones to be treated as personal property “immediately associated” with the suspect’s person. In holding to these precedents, the majority allowed only that any reevaluation “in light of modern technology…must be undertaken by the high court itself.”

Voicing the fear held by many, the dissent warned that this decision allows police “to rummage at leisure through the wealth of personal and business information that can be carried on a mobile phone or handheld computer merely because the device was taken from an arrestee’s person.”

Other courts to tackle this issue have reached a contrary result. As reported in SF Gate, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston of San Francisco ruled in May 2007 that police had violated drug defendants’ rights by searching their cell phones after their arrests. The Ohio Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion.

The California Supreme Court’s ruling clearly has wide-reaching implications for both privacy and evidence. We’d love to hear your thoughts on how this might affect your practice.

For more on cell phone searches, check out CEB’s Scientific Evidence in California Criminal Cases, chap 15.

© The Regents of the University of California, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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