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Warrant Needed For Cell Phone Searches

Posted by Coleen D. St. Clair | Mar 08, 2016 | 0 Comments

The F.B.I and Apple are currently battling in court over a locked cell phone that was used by San Bernadino shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook. The F.B.I wants to access any evidence the phone may contain but are currently unable to do so because the phone is locked and they don't have the password. The legal battle stems from a court order in February that ordered Apple to build software to help the F.B.I. access the phone. Apple has refused to build a "backdoor" into the phone, citing the potential implications it could have for the privacy of all iPhone users, not just those under criminal investigation.

New technology often leads to new legal questions. Just two years ago, the United States Supreme Court decided Riley v. California, 573 U.S. (2014). In this case, the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether or not law enforcement can search the information on a cell phone of a person under arrest, without a first obtaining a warrant.

Riley is a collection of two cases, David Riley's and Brima Wurie's. Both cases dealt with suspects who were arrested and then searched incident to that arrest. Data obtained from the cell phone found on their person led to charges and convictions for both suspects. In Riley's case, he was given an enhanced sentence based in part on data from the phone that suggested he was in a gang. On appeal, his conviction was upheld. Wurie's conviction was reversed by the First Circuit as to two of his charges. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in both cases.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. The court stated that the "ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness." This reasonableness generally requires getting a warrant unless an exception applies. Searches incident to an arrest are an exception to the rule. The court has held that these searches are not unlimited, however. In Chimel v. California, the court held that officers can search the arrestee and "the area 'within his immediate control.'" This was permitted so as to prevent the arrestee gaining possession of a weapon or destroying evidence. In the United States v. Robinson, the court held if a suspect is arrested based on probable cause, then a search of the suspect is permissible.

The Court declined to extend the search incident to arrest exception to the data stored in cell phones. The court held that a warrant would be required in order to search a cell phone. The court was especially concerned with the invasion of privacy, as cell phones store so much information about people from bank records to photographs to email. The court stated that the officers could seize the phone so as to make sure it would not be used as a weapon and no evidence would be destroyed by the suspect, but would need a warrant to search the contents of the phone. The government raised several concerns but the court found none compelling enough to grant searches of phones absent a warrant. The court did state that in certain exigent circumstances a warrantless search of the phone may be permissible such as a "now or never situation." The court also stated that if officers happen upon an unlocked phone, it may be permissible to disable the lock feature as part of securing a scene to preserve evidence.

The court reversed and remanded Riley's case and affirmed Wurie's.

About the Author

Coleen D. St. Clair

Ms. St. Clair is a former senior prosecuting attorney with over 25 years experience handling criminal cases. She has successfully handled tens of thousands of criminal and DUI cases with remarkable results.


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