Riley v. California: Why the police need a warrant to search the cellular phone of a person under arrest
July 21, 2014
Last month, in Riley v. California, the Supreme Court decided that the police, absent exceptional circumstances, cannot constitutionally search an arrested person's cellular phone. If you are studying US law this is a very useful decision to see how courts split on tricky issues. The case is also helpful to understanding how courts apply precedent and create new precedent.
The background to the case is that the police are generally allowed to conduct a warrantless search of a person who is arrested. This is often called a "search incident to an arrest." That is, the police can search the arrested person's pockets, things the arrested person is carrying, and immediate surroundings. Courts agree that the police need to conduct these types of searches to ensure their safety (an arrested person might have a concealed weapon) and to keep arrested persons from destroying evidence. For example, in one important case, a police search of an arrested person's cigarette pack was held constitutional.
The Supreme Court explained that a warrantless search of a cellular phone is different. First, cellular phones usually are not dangerous (unless perhaps the arrested person used the phone to contact accomplices who might want to attack the police). Second, although data on a cellular phone can be remotely destroyed, the Supreme Court believed that measures could be taken to secure the data without searching the phone. Finally, the Supreme Court explained that cellular phones often contain large amounts of personal data, some of it dating years back. Searching a cellular phones pictures, emails, etc. is too far reaching.
Below is a short video discussing the case: