US Supreme Court: Cell Phone Searches Require a Warrant

Posted on in Criminal Defense

cell phone search, Fourth Amendment, Illinois defense attorneyThe laws regarding search and seizure of evidence can often be very confusing. It can be difficult for the average citizen to remember if law enforcement must obtain a warrant before searching a particular piece of property, such as a home, vehicle, or even a purse or wallet. Unfortunately, there are law enforcement officers who take advantage of the average person’s uncertainty regarding their rights by heavily implying or even stating outright that a requested search is not only legal, but that his or her compliance is mandatory. A decision by the United States Supreme Court last summer, however, established a definitive line regarding the search of cell phones incident to an arrest, specifically requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before conducting a search.

Two High Profile Cases

The issue before the high court was based in part on a case called Riley v. California, in which a young man had appealed an enhanced sentence based on information found on his cell phone. His vehicle had initially been impounded for traffic violations and a legal search of the vehicle found illegal weapons, leading to the man’s arrest. A subsequent search of his phone connected him to criminal gang activity, and as a result, additional charges were added and his sentence increased.

A second case, United States v. Wurie, offered similar concerns as a man arrested for selling drugs had his cell phone searched, which led officers to the address of a residence. Upon search of the residence, additional drugs and illegal weapons were found, and additional charges were brought against the man in federal court.

Get a Warrant

In considering both cases and the underlying issue of privacy, the court was forced to decide, for the first time, how the technology inherent to mobile devices may be protected by Fourth Amendment rights. Ultimately, the Supreme Court determined unanimously that the afforded protection must be increased. “Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse,” Chief Justice John Roberts said. “Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.”

While the Court has repeatedly upheld an officer’s discretion in conducting pat-down searches for dangerous items and to prevent the destruction of evidence, Chief Justice Roberts noted that once a phone has been secured, the information it contains does not present an immediate danger. Obtaining a warrant can be done reasonably in such situations, and therefore, must be done prior to a search. In his opinion, he referenced “general warrants” common during the pre-American Revolution era, which “allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.” Such information is now able to carried in a cell phone, he noted, but that does not lessen the protection it should be afforded.

If you are facing criminal charges based on evidence obtained by an illegal search, an experienced lawyer can help you fight them. Contact a skilled criminal defense attorney in Chicago today for a free consultation. Attorney Hal M. Garfinkel has helped many clients in similar situations and will work to protect your rights under the Fourth Amendment.

Back to Top