Can Police Search Arrestees’ Cellphones Without A Warrant?

There is a reason that these devices are often password protected. We want to be able to make sure our information stays safe if our cellphone is ever lost or stolen. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases that pose an important criminal defense question. That question is: can police legally search the cellphones of arrestees without first obtaining a warrant?

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments in April in two cases hinging on whether the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure applies to our cellphones. In both cases, police obtained key pieces of evidence (or investigative leads) from a search of the defendants’ cellphones.

But the two cases had very different outcomes. In a 2007 drug crimes case, an appellate court threw out evidence against the defendant because police had obtained it by searching his cellphone without a warrant after his arrest.

In a 2009 case, police tied the defendant to a gang-related shooting based on evidence obtained from his cellphone. The conviction was upheld based on the California Supreme Court’s ruling that police can search an arrestee’s cellphone if the device is “immediately associated with [the arrestee’s] person.”

If you own a smart phone, just think of how much personal information it contains. This could include:

  • Pictures
  • Videos
  • Emails
  • Text messages
  • Voice mails
  • Calendar appointments
  • Internet browsing history
  • Contacts
  • Bank account information

Even if you are a completely law-abiding citizen, chances are good that there are some things in your phone that you wouldn’t want police to see. Imagine how much higher the stakes would be if police suspected you of a crime.

The Fourth Amendment is meant to protect all Americans, in part, by limiting the power of law enforcement to invade our privacy. If the Supreme Court allows police to search the cellphones of arrestees without a warrant, how much privacy will any of us have?

Source: Washington Post, “Supreme Court to decide case on police cellphone searches,” Robert Barnes, Jan. 17, 2014