Does an arrest give an officer the right to search through the data on
the arrested cell person's without a search warrant? According to
U.S. Supreme Court, the answer is "no." On June 25, 2014, the
Supreme Court issued an extremely important
ruling that sets certain boundaries on cell phone searches that are crucial for
protecting our Fourth Amendment rights—the right against unreasonable
search and seizure.
In this ruling, the high court reached a unanimous decision that a search
warrant is generally required before digital information on an arrested
person's cell phone can be searched by law enforcement.
In this case (573 U.S. ___ (2014)), the Supreme Court decided on two cases
that involved similar subject matter. In the incident that led to Case
No. 13-132, officers in California arrested an individual on suspicion
of weapons charges and seized a cell phone from the suspect's pocket.
The officer accessed information from the phone and noticed repeated use
of a gang-related term. After a detective who specialized in gangs reviewed
the phone's data, the detective discovered evidence that linked the
suspect to a shooting that had recently occurred. This resulted in the
suspect facing additional charges and a more severe sentence due to the
alleged gang affiliation. The suspect filed a motion to have the evidence
from his cell phone suppressed, but the motion was rejected and he was
found guilty. The defendant appealed the decision, but his conviction
was affirmed by the California Court of Appeal.
The other case, Case No. 13-212, revolved around an incident in which a
cell phone was seized from a person who was arrested for what appeared
to be a drug sale. Officers noticed from the phone's screen that the
phone was receiving numerous calls coming from a caller ID that said "my
house." The officers then looked at the phone's call log and
tracked the "my house" phone number to an address that was believed
to be the arrested person's residence. After securing a warrant to
search this residence, they discovered drugs, cash, a firearm and ammunition.
This resulted in the suspect being charged with both drug and weapon crimes.
This defendant tried to get the evidence from the phone search suppressed,
but his motion was denied and he was found guilty of his charges. However,
his convictions were later vacated by the First Circuit, which overturned
the motion denial.
These cases were brought up to the Supreme Court for review. The higher
court ruled in favor of the arrested individuals in both cases. In its
explanation of its ruling, the Supreme Court discussed whether or not
cell phone searches fall under a well-known exception to the search warrant
requirement—the exception that says that a warrant is not needed
if the search is "incident to a lawful arrest." According to
the court's discussion, this exception applies when an immediate search
is needed to ensure the officer's safety or to prevent evidence from
being immediately destroyed by the suspect. The Supreme Court found that
neither of these situations applies in the situation of a cell phone search
of an arrested person.
The court also found that in the balancing of protecting the suspect's
privacy and protecting the government's safety-related interests,
the privacy issue carries more weight. This is due to the fact that cell
phones can store massive amounts of very private and personal digital
information. The ruling noted that phones today can contain hundreds of
videos, thousands of photos and millions of pages of texts. This raises
the stakes to a much higher level of invasion of privacy.
Ian N. Friedman and his team are pleased that the Supreme Court has chosen to preserve
our Fourth Amendment rights and our right to reasonable privacy. While
law enforcement techniques were somewhat restrained by this court decision,
individual liberty has prevailed!
If you are accused of a crime in the Cleveland, Ohio area, work with a
qualified Cleveland criminal defense attorney who can help you safeguard
your Constitutional rights.
Contact Ian N. Friedman today.