Warrants needed for cellphone searches, says US Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that police officers must usually obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a cellphone.

When an individual is placed under arrest, do law enforcement officers have the right to search his or her cellphone without first obtaining a warrant? The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered this issue and unanimously decided that warrants are necessary to search cellphones, in most cases.

The issue came before the high court in two separate cases, both involving warrantless cellphone searches performed after an arrest.

The first case — Riley v. California — began when law enforcement officers carried out a routine traffic stop. Upon searching the vehicle, officers found weapons and took Riley's cellphone. A warrantless search of the contents of the smartphone revealed information suggesting Riley was involved in a gang and that he had been involved in a shooting that had taken place weeks earlier.

Riley was then charged and convicted of attempted murder. He received an enhanced sentence due to the purported gang-related activity discovered on his smartphone.

The second case — U.S. v. Wurie — arose when law enforcement officers placed Wurie under arrest for an alleged drug sale. The officers seized Wurie's cellphone and searched the phone without first obtaining a warrant. Based on information in the phone, they determined Wurie's home address. After obtaining a warrant to search the home, officers uncovered weapons and drugs. Wurie was then convicted of drug and firearm charges.

The High Court's Decision

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts focused on the many uses beyond acting as a phone that smartphones provide these days. For instance, Roberts indicated, smartphones can be used as "cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers."

While he recognized that the court's decision could create some problems for law enforcement officers, he concluded, "Privacy comes at a cost."

This decision will have vast implications for those facing arrest in the United States. According to a Pew Research Center report conducted in 2013, over 90 percent of Americans have a cellphone. As Roberts noted, not only do most people in the United States have a cellphone, most people have their phone in their hand or otherwise on their person much of the time. Requiring law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant before searching a cellphone found incident to arrest will protect the privacy of many Americans facing arrest in the U.S.

If you are facing criminal charges in Virginia, it is a good idea to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. In such situations, a legal professional will be able to examine the evidence in the case and mount a strong defense on your behalf.