Warrantless Searches Of Cell Phones


In June of 2014, The United States Supreme Court announced that the police may not perform warrantless searches of cell phones without a warrant. Riley v. California; U.S. v. Wurie, 573 U.S ___, 2014. The Court’s holding is a victory for privacy rights and Constitutional traditionalists. Specifically, the Court stated that “the police may not, without a warrant search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.”

Although it certainly seems that there is nothing private anymore, the Supreme Court recognized that there are still privacy interests that should be protected from unrestricted government intrusion. One of the interests worthy of protection from warrantless searches is the digital information contained in a cell phone. In coming to its conclusion, the Court had to determine if warrantless searches of cell phones falls within one of the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Warrantless searches of cell phones would be reasonable only if it fell within a specific exception to the fourth Amendments warrant requirement. Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. ____, 2011.

The exception usually associated with warrantless searches of cell phones is that of a search incident to arrest. A search incident to arrest is justified if the search is limited to the area in the arrestee’s immediate control and is in the interest of officer safety or in preventing the destruction of evidence. Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752. The Court found that the search of digital information on a cell phone does not further the governments interest under this standard.

In explaining its rationale, the Court noted that digital evidence in a cell phone cannot be used as a weapon to harm an officer or assist the arrestee to escape. Therefore, an officer can examine a phone’s physical aspects of a cell phone to ensure it cannot be used as a weapon when arresting someone. However, police cannot perform warrantless searches of cell phones for the digital data contained within a cell phone. Police must get a warrant before searching a cell phone.

It must be noted that the Court did not issue a bright-line rule that warrantless searches of cell phones can never occur. The Court left open the possibility that there may still be exceptions yet to be developed allowing warrantless searches of cell phones depending on the facts and circumstances of a particular case. One of those exceptions is likely to be if there are exigent or emergency circumstances which would justify an immediate search of the contents of a cell phone. In that case, the police would have to explain what emergency existed which would permit an exception to the warrant requirement. The case law to be developed on this point should be interesting considering the amount of digital information that exists and our increasing reliance on this information in our day to day lives.


Scroll to Top