U.S. Supreme Court Holds that Police Officers Need Warrants to Search Cell Phones

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.

Two Wins Highlight the Importance of Each Element of an Illinois DUI

Today in state court at 26th and California, Villalobos & Associates won two separate cases of alleged DUI.  In one case, our client was driving his car down Western Avenue when his tire blew out and fell completely off the wheel.  With the wheel sparking against the asphalt and the car swerving, the client tried to pull the car over.  Just as he gained control of the car and began pulling it over, he was spotted by police and pulled over.  The officer questioning him noted an odor of alcohol and the client’s erratic behavior as indicators that he had been drinking. However, the client did not say that he had been drinking, he did not take a breathalyzer, and he did not perform any field sobriety tests.  At trial, a judge found that the state did not meet its burden of proof that the client had in fact been intoxicated.

In another DUI case at 26th street, a client was charged with DUI after police responded to a car accident on Damen avenue.  When the responding officer arrived on the scene, our client was standing on the passenger side of the car, which had hit the median under a viaduct.  The client admitted he was drinking and that the car was his. In fact, the client took a breathalyzer test and was legally intoxicated.

However, at trial, attorney Raul Villalobos presented two witnesses who testified that it was actually the client’s friend who had been driving.  The state called the responding officer to testify that the client actually admitted to driving the car but that testimony was contradicted by the fact that the officer didn’t write that important fact in any of her police reports.  The officer further testified that she couldn’t tell if the client understood her questions because he was drunk or because he didn’t understand English.  The judge agreed that the evidence against our client was not bullet proof and there was doubt about whether the client actually admitted to driving the car.  As such, the judge found the client not guilty.

These two cases highlight that even for DUI charges, the state has the burden of proving every element of the criminal charge beyond a reasonable doubt.  In many cases, defendants can hurt themselves by admitting any of the elements, even if it seems obvious from the circumstances.  That is why it is so important to call an attorney as soon as you think that you may be suspected of committing a crime.  Experienced attorneys can help prevent you from admitting anything that can be used against you in a court of law.  The lack of evidence can be the difference between a guilty and not guilty verdict.