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Supreme Court Requires Warrants for Searches of Arrestees' Cell Phones

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.

Attorney 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.