US Supreme Court requires police to get warrants for cellphone searches

In June 2014 the Supreme Court ruled that police need to obtain warrants before searching the contents of people's cellphones when they are arrested.

In June 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in two cases that had been combined for review because they both dealt with the legality of police searching cellphones of people they had arrested without obtaining warrants. The Court's decision has been hailed by many as the broadest application of privacy protection in the face of advancing technology.

Cellphone searches incident to arrest

The Supreme Court has addressed the issue of police searching people when they are arrested in the past. In 1973, the Court held that police were within their rights to search inside a pack of cigarettes in a man's coat pocket when he was arrested without getting a warrant. The Court reasoned such searches were exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement for searches because police needed to protect themselves and prevent evidence from being destroyed.

In the two cases before the Court, police had arrested a man on weapons charges and another man on drug charges. Police in both cases searched the men's cellphones during their arrests, which led to further evidence that helped to convict the men. The men appealed their convictions, both arguing that police should have obtained warrants to search their phones. Authorities argued that the cellphone searches were legal under the "search incident to arrest" exception to the warrant requirement articulated in 1972.

Broad application of privacy protection

The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the searches were not constitutional. The Court noted that cellphones are pervasive in society, and technology has advanced so much that these phones can hold a wealth of personal information. People's phones have lists of contact information, email account access, social media account access, photographs, calendars and even access to information in cloud storage. The Court likened police searching this information to police having unfettered access to people's homes and papers in colonial times - exactly the type of intrusion the Founding Fathers were trying to prevent when they drafted the Bill of Rights.

Speak with an attorney

While privacy advocates cheered the Court's decision because it protects people's right against warrantless intrusions into their private lives, police often make mistakes or disregard proper procedures when arresting people. Those facing criminal charges need someone who can detect those errors and make sure any evidence obtained from those errors is not used. If you are facing criminal charges, speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney who can help protect your rights.

Keywords: criminal offense; search warrant; Fourth Amendment