Since 1914, the “search incident to arrest” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, has allowed police to search any items that a person had on them, or within reach in a car when arrested. Over time, natural progression led to the inclusion of cell phones in these searches.
In Riley v. California, an individual was stopped for a traffic violation that led to an arrest on weapons charges. Upon arrest, the police officer searched the defendant’s cell phone and found photographs and videos that were used to charge him for a previous shooting.
Today, the Supreme Court ruled in Riley, that the “search incident to arrest” exception does not apply to cellphones because of their nature. Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his opinion for the Court, “it is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than ninety percent of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate.” As a result, individuals should be protected from the search of these devices without a warrant. See, Opinion Analysis: Broad Cloak of Privacy for Cellphones.
In ruling so, the Court rejected every argument placed before it that an officer should be permitted to search a cellphone taken from an arrestee. It left open just one option for such searches without a court order: if police are facing a dire emergency, such as trying to locate a missing child or heading off a terrorist plot. Even then, it ruled, those “exigent” exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant would have to satisfy a judge after the fact.Id. The protection also applies to remotely stored private information that can be accessed by the cellphone.
The reasoning behind the decision was that substantial privacy interests are at stake when digital data is involved, and that this is not comparable to inventorying personal items. The Court explained that cell phones have an immense storage capacity and prior searches of a person was limited by physical realities that individual could only carry a small number items. See, Supreme Court Rules that Police Need Warrant to Search iPhones.
Very few things are as common to us all as cellphones today. Quite frankly, I often marvel at the thought of how we functioned without them — I realize what this says about my dependency on technology. Nonetheless, our cell phones posses a vast array of personal information, from the most basic to the most intimate. The Court’s decision reflects their appreciation for this reality. Chief Justice Roberts, in discussing the importance of cell phones and its common place wrote, “the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” The court went on to state that a cell phone — due simply to its ability to hold tons of data — may contain more information in total than an individual’s entire home. Surely, access to this level of one’s privacy should require a warrant.
Whether you agree with the opinion of SCOTUS or not, at a time when many legal issues are becoming more complex, it is refreshing to have our Country’s high court unanimously agree on a bright line rule that should assist and make easier to administer the proper search of cell phones in practice.