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Supreme Court Ruling on Cell Phone Searches

Steven R. Andrade July 3, 2014

On June 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling establishing that a person has a right to privacy with respect to information on his or her cell phone. Traditionally, law enforcement officers would routinely search arrestees' cell phones for evidence or to satisfy their curiosity. Evidence on cell phones can be incriminating. For example, we have seen text messages and photos indicating that the sender wants to buy drugs. This evidence would help the police in establishing that any drugs found in a suspect's possession was possessed for sale. Without that information, the drugs could have been for personal use and there wouldn't be proof of possession for sale. This is significant because penalties for charges related to drug sales are much more severe than penalties for drug possession for personal use.

Don't Give Your Police the Password to Your Phone

Unfortunately, in many cases, my clients have voluntarily provided passwords to enable the police to look at their cell phone information. It always amazes me when clients that have dealt with law enforcement before consent to searches or provide cell phone passwords to police. By doing so, they provide evidence to the police which often results in an arrest or conviction. A warrant for a search is never needed if a person consents to a search. A suspect should never consent to any search; make police take the chance that the evidence will be suppressed if they don't get a search warrant or make them do the work to obtain a search warrant.

In a case last year, police suspected our client of helping a fugitive evade capture. Our client gave his cell phone and password to police and they obtained incriminating evidence. After a lengthy hearing, a Superior Court Judge found the evidence lacking and dismissed the case. However, had the client not agreed to let the police see his cell phone data, the case might never have been filed.

Cell Phone Searches in Santa Barbara

In one case, a young man who was charged with unlawful sexual intercourse had a cell phone which had text messaging back and forth between him and the alleged victim. The police did everything they could to try to find his cell phone. They pressured him to turn the cell phone over but he refused. They showed up at his mother's place of employment with a search warrant authorizing the seizure of the cell phone but they did not find it. We were concerned that if the police obtained the cell phone, the text messaging showing his innocence might be lost. We made sure that our client e-mailed all of the data that was on his cell phone to our office before we gave the cell phone to law enforcement. With the information that we obtained from the cell phone, we were able to persuade the prosecutor's office that they couldn't prove that the client knew the young lady was underage. No criminal charges were filed.

Law Enforcement Needs a Warrant Before a Search

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before searching the contents of an arrestee's cell phone was an excellent decision. I agree with the Supreme Court that very private information is stored in modern cell phones, including contact history, text messaging, photographs and other private information. Confidential business information and personal relationship information is private and it certainly isn't law enforcement's business to pry into this data looking for evidence. The court recognized the dangers involved in allowing police to search an arrestee's cell phone without a warrant. The court stated:

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life.” The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.

Riley v California (2014) 571 U.S. ___.

In the past, law enforcement would almost always search cell phones when they make an arrest, rummaging around to try to find some evidence of criminal behavior. Thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, they will no longer be able to satisfy their curiosity without obtaining a warrant.

Santa Barbara Criminal Defense Attorney

If a law enforcement officer used your phone in the wrong manner, contact our experienced criminal defense attorney in Southern California. We've gone through similar cases and can help you.