Police Required to Obtain Warrant to Search Cell Phone

Do police need a "warrant to search cell phone"?

Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer, Hope Lefeber explains that the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California, 2014 WL 2864483, Nos. 13-132 and United States v. Wurie, No. 13-212, is a major victory for an individual’s constitutional rights to privacy and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

The two cases were decided together based upon the following facts in the record.

Petitioner Riley, in No. 13-132 was stopped for a traffic violation which eventually led to his arrest on weapons charges.

An officer searching Riley seized a cell phone from Riley’s pants pocket and accessed information on the phone.

Noticing a term associated with a street gang, the officer had a detective specializing in gangs examine the digital contents of the phone two hours later.

Riley was then charged in connection with a gang shooting. A suppression motion was filed in the trial court, which was denied and he was convicted and the California Court of Appeal affirmed.

The California Supreme Court denied Riley’s petition for review, App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 13–132, at 24a.

Petitioner Wurie, in No. 13-212, was arrested after police observed him participate in a drug transaction.

At the police station, his cell phone was seized and the officers noticed that he was receiving multiple calls from a certain caller.

The officers opened the phone, accessed the call log and found the number associated with the caller.

They then traced the number to Wurie’s apartment, got a search warrant and found drugs, guns and cash.

Wurie was charges with drug and firearm offenses and moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search.

The motion was denied, 612 F.Supp.2d 104 (Mass.2009). Wurie was convicted and the Circuit Court reversed the denial of the motion to suppress and vacated the relevant convictions. 728 F.3d 1 (2013).

Ms. Lefeber explains that this decision is critical because it defines how far the police may go in searching a cell phone.

The Supreme Court, in these cases, has now ruled that the police generally may not, without a warrant search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested, without a warrant.

Officers may only examine a cell phone’s physical aspects to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon.

The Supreme Court did, however, leave open the ability of the police to search the digital contents of a cell phone without a warrant where there are exigent circumstances.

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.

Chief Justice Roberts noted, in his Opinion:

“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ Chief Justice Robert

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 cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.

Hope Lefeber is a federal criminal defense attorney in New York City with over 30 years experience. She is recognized by Superlawyers and is ranked by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal Defense Lawyers in the United States.

Ms. Lefeber’s key areas of practice include defense in business and corporate fraud, mail and wire fraud, money laundering, tax fraud and other white collar crimes, conspiracy and drug offenses.

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