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The Law and Search Warrants

Law Enforcement now generally needs a warrant to search an arrestee’s cell phone according to a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Over the years the Supreme Court has had a difficult time trying to fashion concrete rules on searches and seizures that law enforcement officers can clearly understand when it comes to what they can do and cannot do.

This problem goes back about 100 years when the Court ruled in Weeks v. U.S. that the Fourth Amendment permits officers “to search the person of the accused when legally arrested to discover and seize the fruits and evidences of crime.” 41 years ago in U.S. v. Robinson the Court said that the right to search incident to arrest includes the right to examine the contents of containers on the arrestee’s person or in his immediate possession. The justification for this search was that it was incident to lawful arrest so no probable cause was necessary. The Court has ruled that it doesn’t make any difference what kind of container is searched incident to arrest such as a locked brief case of a simple paper bag.

Because of the prior rulings the Courts throughout the country have ruled that a cell phone carried by an arrestee could be searched without a warrant. The Supreme Court has now reversed course on the issue of cell phones by its rulings in Riley v. California and U.S. v Wurie.

David Riley was arrested for possession of concealed weapons during a traffic stop. Evidence found on his cell phone during a search incident to arrest produced evidence that implicated Riley in an attempted murder and other crimes. This evidence was used to convict him on several counts and he was sentenced to a term of 15 years to life. On his appeal he argued that the evidence obtained for the search of his cell phone should have been suppressed and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and reversed his convictions.

Brima Wurie was arrested for selling drugs. Again evidence was found on his cell phone during a search incident to arrest which was used to get a search warrant for his residence. During the search of his house, officers confiscated crack, other drugs, cash, and a firearm. He was convicted and received a sentence of more than 21 years in federal prison. His convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court ruling that the warrantless search of the cell phones were invalid.

The Court, in their rulings, looked to the quantity and nature of the private information that could be obtained from searching a cell phone. All nine justices agreed that examination of a cell phone could constitute such a massive invasion of personal privacy that judicial warrants should be required to authorize law enforcement access to them. It appears this ruling might apply to other devices during an arrest such as laptops, tablets and smart wristwatches. It appears that other types of searches incident to arrest are still allowed.

The Court did say that officers could make a physical inspection of the phone to ensure officer safety and to make sure that it could not be used as a weapon.

No warrant is required by consent, under probation or parole search conditions to which the arrestee is subject, or where an imminent exigency requires immediate access to the phone. Evidence obtained from cell phone searches incident to arrest that were lawful in some jurisdictions before issuance of the Riley ruling on June 25, 2014 is not affected by this decision.

This information was obtained from an article written by Devallis Rutledge in the July issue of POLICE Magazine. Mr. Rutledge is a former police officer, veteran prosecutor and currently serves as special counsel to the Los Angeles County district attorney.


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