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Law Enforcement Cannot Search Cell Phones Without Warrants

by | Jul 11, 2015 | Firm News |

It is common knowledge that the law moves slow, much slower than technology. When it comes to technological advances, the law can barely keep up. One should be able to see why. Drafters of legislation, usually not keen on computer science and engineering, have a difficult time anticipating how new devices could impact the law.

For example, cell phones in the 1980’s were bricks. Users could expect dropped calls and much attention. The ability to make calls without a landline was groundbreaking. But, cell phones did not serve any other function besides making calls. Many could not predict that cell phones would become min-computers. Smartphones are radically different from first generation cell phones; lawyers, judges, and legislators may have been the last to realize it.

Smartphones have impacted the law, and the Fourth Amendment. Messages, applications, and search history can assist law enforcement. Drug deals can be carried out by text message. Illegal transfer of stolen money can be done by mobile banking. Indeed, a murderer could develop ways to kill someone by searching on his or her cell phone. The vast majority of cell phone use is not criminal in nature. As such, it is important that privacy is protected.

In June of 2014, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that searching a cell phone incident to arrest requires a search warrant. Riley v. California was a strong rebuke of the government’s position that law enforcement should be able to access digital data before it could be potentially destroyed.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, in part, that: “the fact that technology now allows an individual to carry [the privacies of life] in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple— get a warrant.”

In practice, law enforcement has been slow to apply Riley. One would be surprised how often police officers still search cell phones after a DUI, domestic violence, or misdemeanor arrest without a warrant. In these cases, there can be redress if inculpatory evidence is obtained.

Should law enforcement search a cell phone after an arrest without a warrant, a defense attorney may be able to prevail in suppressing the evidence. A 1538 motion to suppress should definitely be considered as an option by a defense attorney if there are possible Riley violations.

Smartphones are more than just phones, they are at the center of many people’s lives. Although the Fourth Amendment didn’t touch upon the legality of searching cell phones (the founding fathers were smart but not fortune tellers), we now know that it is the law of the land that cell phones cannot be searched without a warrant.