Supreme Court Rules that Police Need Warrant to Search iPhones


The US Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Riley v. California today indicating that law enforcement must have a warrant to search cell-phone content of a person that has been arrested. The petitioner in the case was stopped for a traffic violation that eventually led to an arrest on weapons charges. After being arrested, a police officer seized the defendant’s cell phone and accessed photographs and videos that were used to charge him with a shooting that occurred a few weeks earlier. The Supreme Court found that generally, without a warrant, law enforcement may not search digital information stored on a cell phone of an individual that has been arrested. The Court determined that the Fourth amendment exception that allowed police to search property found on or near an arrestee does not apply for cell phones. It was decided that digital data stored on a cell phone does not present risks to officer safety or present risk of evidence destruction (it noted that law enforcement has some technologies to prevent remote wiping to combat the potential loss of evidence). The Court noted that exigent circumstances exceptions to the Fourth amendment would still apply in case-specific situations. 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. The difference is with a cell phone a person can “store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos”. Further a search of a cell phone could also include data from remote servers which would extend well beyond papers and effects in the proximity of an arrested individual. It was acknowledged that the decision would have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime, but it was noted that information could still be obtained from a cell phone with valid warrant, and partly due to today’s technology, warrants can be obtained with “increasing efficiency”. This decision represents a win for personal privacy, but a potential setback to over-engrossing law enforcement actions. It is great to see that this was a unanimous decision that clearly defines for both law enforcement and the general public of the expectations of privacy when cell phone are involved. This will be a very important decision in the practice of law. It is important to note that the Court did not rest its decision on whether or not the phone was locked, and this means that protection even would apply if an individual has not password secured their device.