Supreme Court Says Warrants Needed To Search Cellphones

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The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision this week that will help to protect the rights of individuals who find themselves under arrest. With this ruling, law enforcement officers across the country — and that includes North Carolina — must obtain a warrant before conducting a search of the data stored on an arrestee’s cellphone.

This does not mean that officers cannot touch someone’s cellphone following an arrest without a warrant. Officers may still look for objects that could harm them — razor blades, for example, or some other type of weapon — but that is as far as they can go. There can be no glance at an arrestee’s wallpaper or call log, no review of recent text messages, no paging through pictures stored on the phone.

The court reasoned that data does not pose the same threat to arresting officers that physical objects might. The case that most courts rely on when issues of warrantless searches come up, United States v. Robinson, could not reasonably extend to searches of data stored on a phone, the court said.

In Robinson, officers were patting down a man they had placed under arrest. They found a crumpled cigarette package but could tell that the package contents were not cigarettes. They searched the package and found heroin capsules. The rationale for the warrantless search was that the contents of the cigarette package could have been dangerous. According to the court in this new decision, “there are no comparable risks when the search is of digital data.”

Furthermore, law enforcement cannot search an arrestee’s cellphone out of fear that evidence may be destroyed. The court acknowledged that it would be possible to wipe a cellphone in the time it took police to obtain a warrant but determined that the problem is not widespread enough to trump the arrestee’s rights.

Source: Courthouse News, “Justices Bar Warrantless Cellphone Searches,” Barbara Leonard, June 25, 2014