On June 25, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two cases, Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie that dramatically affect litigation of criminal cases. Both cases dealt with defendants who had been arrested on suspicion of one crime but were then charged with more crimes after police searched their cell phones and found evidence linking them to other crimes. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court justices held that cell phones are different from other objects that people carry on them, and as a result, deserve a higher standard of constitutional protection.
When police officers go through an arrestee’s pockets as he is being taken into custody, police can perform what is called a “search incident to arrest.” That is, they can look at anything on the suspect’s person (or in the immediate area) such as cigarette boxes, wallets, and other similar objects to make sure that they do not contain contraband, weapons, or other potentially illegal objects. The purpose of this type of search is to prevent the destruction of evidence and to minimize any threat of harm to officers if the suspect is carrying weapons. Police do not need warrants to search suspects for these types of objects.
Cell phones, the Court held, are different because they do not pose any safety risk to officers, and they cannot be used to conceal or destroy evidence. Moreover, cell phones these days are essentially mini-computers which can store millions of pages of data, pictures, and records which can be used to reconstruct “the sum of an individual’s private life.” Riley v. California, 573 U.S. at 18 (2014). Unlike a slip of paper in a suspect’s wallet that simply contains a phone number, cell phones can give police officers the complete contact information of the owner of the phone number as well as a complete log of communication between the person and the suspect. Text messages and emails between contacts can provide even more detailed information.
What further complicates the matter, and what made it even more clear that cell phones deserve more protection, is the fact that information on cell phones is often actually stored on remote servers. This means that a police officer searching through a suspect’s phone would actually be searching not only the phone itself, but any database accessible by the phone, whether local or otherwise. Clearly, this would go far beyond the police’s objective of securing the immediate area around the suspect.
The Supreme Court’s ruling is a great recognition of the role that electronic devices play in our lives. People now depend on electronic devices to maintain almost every aspect of their lives, from recreation to business and everything in between. Access to a suspect’s phone could give police unrestricted access to a person’s personal life. Indeed, the Court explained that it would not engage in “line-drawing,” that is, defining which searches of cell phones are permissible and which go too far. Such a rule would be too hard for police to follow and too hard to enforce. Conversely, its broad ruling was meant to give police clear guidance on how to follow the law. The Court did acknowledge that its ruling would have “some impact”on police efforts to combat crime but emphasized that search warrants are an important component of the Supreme Court’s recognition of 4th Amendment rights.
Villalobos & Associates handles hundreds of criminal cases a year, many of which involve at least some evidence obtained from the defendant’s cell phone. In light of the Court’s recent ruling, some of this evidence may be off-limits to police until they have secured a search warrant. For that reason, it is extremely important to contact an experienced criminal attorney, like Villalobos & Associates, to uphold your rights if you have been accused of committing a crime.