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Landmark 4th Amendment Case Limits Police Ability to Search Cell Phones

On Wednesday, June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Riley v. Californina, issuing a rare decision in favor of the criminally accused – a 9-0 decision stating that the police may not search an individual’s cell phone without a warrant following arrest merely under the commonly used exception of being a “search incident to arrest.”

The Fourth Amendment demands that the people have a right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures and that no warrant should be issued “but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation[.]” Despite this, our Courts eventually began to uphold certain exceptions to the warrant requirement under the logic that in certain circumstances, warrantless searches are not “unreasonable” and therefore not subject to the normal warrant requirements. The Courts have continued to expand these “exceptions” and today Courts allow exceptions for all kinds of situations – when exigent circumstances are present such as potential destruction of the evidence, when there is consent to search, if evidence is in plain view and can be legally accessed, the notorious “stop and frisk” exception based on reasonable suspicion of a criminal act, and a few others.

The exception at issue in the Riley case is the “search incident to arrest.” Historically under Chimel v. California, a search incident to arrest, without a warrant, is allowed immediately following a suspect’s arrest if there is probable cause for a search and there is an exigent circumstance of either a danger to the officer or a need to preserve evidence for later use at trial.

With the rise of cell phone use and ownership in the United States, more and more police officers began to search the cell phones of individuals they had just arrested. These searches fell under a gray area of the law as the officer would claim search incident to arrest. Despite these claims, it often appeared that the officer either lacked probable cause that evidence would be found or lacked either Chimel exigent circumstance, especially with the suspect already in custody.

In Riley, the Supreme Court said that a general search of a cell phone after arrest does not present either of the risks outlined in Chimel. Digital data stored within a cell phone cannot itself be used to harm or endanger the officer. Similarly, Chimel’s concern about the destruction of evidence dealt with physical evidence and is different from digital data on a cell phone. Chief Justice Roberts, writing the opinion in Riley, admitted that this holding would have some impact on the abilities of law enforcement to combat crime, but found this concern outweighed by the privacy interests at stake – noting that more than 90% of American adults own cell phones and each stores vast amounts of personal, private information. Roberts also noted that under certain exigent circumstances, a warrantless cell phone search might still be acceptable, but generally the police must obtain a search warrant for a cell phone search.

If you or someone you know were recently arrested and had your cell phone searched, a good criminal defense attorney may be able to suppress any information obtained as a result of this search. The lawyers at the Clifford Division of Clifford Clendenin & O’Hale, LLP have handled hundreds of cases involving searches and successfully suppressed evidence of numerous illegal searches. We are knowledgeable in the law and will fight for your rights. If you need criminal law representation, call 336-574-2788 or email clifford@cliffordlawoffice.com.

For more information, contact the Clifford Division of Clifford, Clendenin & O'hale.

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