Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Phone First: Obtain a Search Warrant Prior to Searching a Defendant’s Cell Phone

The recent Supreme Court decision Riley v. California involved two defendants, in separate incidents, who had their cell phones seized and searched post-arrest.

Defendant Riley was stopped for a traffic violation, and his cell phone was seized from his pants’ pocket on a search incident to his arrest. Photographs and videos were found on the cellphone, which in part resulted in the defendant being charged in connection with a shooting, along with an enhanced gang affiliation charge. Defendant Wurie was arrested after a drug deal, and his cell phone was seized at the police station. While at the station, the defendant received multiple calls from a number that appeared as “my house” on his phone.  The police traced the number to a listed address, obtained a search warrant, and found drugs, a firearm, ammunition, and cash at the residence. The defendant was subsequently charged with the firearm and drug offenses.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that a warrantless search for information stored in a cell phone that was seized from the defendant, pursuant to a search incident to arrest, violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court carved out exceptions for law enforcement safety and exigent circumstances, but found that in these two cases neither exception existed.  Some examples of circumstances justifying an exception may include the pursuit of a fleeing suspect and assisting persons who are threatened with imminent injury. The Supreme Court also noted that some of the more “extreme hypotheticals” such as a suspect texting an accomplice who, it is feared, is preparing to detonate a bomb, or a child abductor who may have information about the child’s location on his cell phone, would clearly fall under the exception.


Jonathan M. Feinstein

Author: Jonathan M. Feinstein