Can A Police Officer Search My Cell Phone Without A Warrant?
Information Provided By: Texas Law Shield, LLP
Fourth Amendment jurisprudence may be the most heavily litigated amendment to our Constitution. As a general rule, the police must have a warrant prior to conducting a search or seizure unless an exception applies. These exceptions to the warrant requirement have been created by the courts interpreting and deciding when it is reasonable to search and seize persons and property without a warrant. As technology advances, the 4th Amendment must evolve as well. There is one piece of technology that has become an extension of our person, our cell phone. Many of our cell phones are overflowing with personal information such as texts, personal contacts, schedules, emails, and photos. Can a police officer search through the personal contents of your cell phone without a warrant?
On June 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court ruled “No.” To understand the importance of this ruling, it is useful to review the evolution of prior lower court decisions on this subject.
Division of the Lower Courts
Until recently, courts around the country have been split on whether a police officer could search through the contents of a person’s cell phone without a warrant. In a California case, a man was stopped for driving with expired registration tags and a suspended license. The police conducted a search incident to arrest finding a smart phone in the man’s pocket. A “search incident to arrest” is an exception to the warrant requirement that allows a police officer to search a person and the area immediately surrounding the person during or immediately after a lawful arrest usually for “officer safety.”
The officer looked through the phone’s contact list and text messages where he saw certain names preceded by the letters “CK.” The police officer believed that “CK” was an acronym for “Crip Killers,” a slang term for members of the Bloods gang. Hours after the arrest, a detective who specialized in gangs further examined the contents of the phone and found videos and photos associated with the Bloods gang. In one photo, the man was posed next to an automobile that had been involved in a shooting. He was later charged and convicted of three crimes including attempted murder. The California Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment permits a warrantless search of a cell phone incident to arrest as long as the cell phone was immediately associated with the arrestee’s person.
A case arising out of Massachusetts had a completely different outcome. In that case, a police officer conducting routine surveillance saw an individual make a drug sale from his car. Officers arrested and seized two cell phones. After arriving at the station, the officers noticed the phone repeatedly receiving calls from “My House.” The officers opened the cell phone, saw a picture of a woman and a baby set as the phone’s wallpaper. They pressed a button to access the call log, saw the phone number associated with “My House,” and used an online phone directory to trace the phone number to an apartment building. Officers obtained a search warrant for the specific apartment and seized drugs, cash, and weapons.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals held that cell phones require a warrant to be searched (completely opposite of the California Supreme Court). They reasoned that cell phones are different from other physical possessions that may be searched incident to arrest without a warrant because of the amount of personal data contained within the cell phone.
What Did the Supreme Court Decide?
With a clear division between the courts, the United States Supreme Court made a ruling on this issue in June of 2014. The Supreme Court held that police may not search digital information on a cell phone without a warrant. The Court reasoned that cell phones are the one device carried on the person that has an immense storage capacity and collects personal, detailed information.
The Court stated that data stored on a cell phone cannot be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate an arrestee’s escape (normally the justification for a search incident to arrest). Officers may examine the phone’s physical aspects to make sure that it cannot be used as a weapon, but they cannot go through the cell phone’s contents because the contents cannot harm anyone. What if the contents of the cell phone might warn officers of an impending danger such as a confederate headed to the scene to harm a police officer? The Court stated that this concern should be addressed on a case by case basis and is not an issue in this instance. If it were to arise, the exigent circumstance exception to the warrant requirement may apply. “Exigent circumstances” typically means there is an emergency condition such as a fleeing felon, a person’s life is in danger or evidence is being destroyed.
A second issue addressed by the Supreme Court was, what if information or evidence that may lead to an arrest is destroyed on the cell phone? The Court stated that there is no indication that this problem is prevalent and even if the cell phone was secured by the police, it could still be vulnerable to another person remotely wiping the cell phone’s data.
The Court made it clear that this decision does not prevent a cell phone from ever being searched without a warrant, but that a warrant is generally required before a search. The narrow ruling states that a cell phone cannot be searched without a warrant pursuant to the search incident to arrest exception. However, the Court did leave the door open that in the event of an exigent circumstance, there may be a justification for a warrantless search of a cell phone.
As always, we will strive to keep you updated on changes in the law that may impact your legal rights.