Take this scenario for example…
You're driving down the road in your car, and all of the sudden you see those lights in your rearview mirror—those lights that have the weird chilling effect that makes your heart skip a beat or two. Wondering what you have done wrong, you start thinking. "Was I speeding?" "Did I not signal at that last turn?" "What is going on?" After you find your mind again, you pull over to the side of the road and wait—scrambling for your documents. However, you remember that you have an expired license, and no insurance. The officer asks his or her questions, and you try to answer them to the best of your knowledge. The officer then places you under arrest for driving with an expired license and without valid insurance. The officer gathers all of your belongings—your wallet or purse, keys, and more importantly your cell phone.
Can the police, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested?
This exact question was asked in a landmark case that came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in late June of 2014. Riley v. California (573 U.S. ____ (2014) explained that law enforcement must generally get a search warrant before conducting a search on a suspect's cell phone. In this case, the same scenario from above occurred, except that the suspect in Riley had a firearm in his car at the time of the stop and arrest. The Court reasoned that it would not extend the Robinson factors to a search of a suspect's cell phone. Those factors for conducting a warrantless search include: harm to officers or the destruction of evidence. Since Robinson does not apply to cell phones per Riley, law enforcement must get a search warrant before looking into your phone, and law enforcement cannot use the factors above as exceptions to a warrant. To answer the question above, in this situation, the officer cannot search your phone until they get a warrant.
"Wait, if I am arrested, isn't my phone fair game for a search?"
The answer to that question is a big NO. Riley answers this question for us in turn.
"The fact that an arrestee has diminished privacy interests does not mean that the Fourth Amendment falls out of the picture entirely. Not every search 'is acceptable solely because a person is in custody.'"
This means that just because you have been arrested does not mean that the police can do anything they want and search anything they want. Additionally, although you are in fact arrested and your normal privacy rights have been taken down a notch or two, this does not mean that your Fourth Amendment rights—no searches or seizures without a probable cause warrant—goes out the door.
What does this all mean?
Have a friend or family member who is always glued to their phones 24/7? Enough where you would say that it is literally another body part? The U.S. Supreme Court in Riley basically stated that since our cell phones are essentially always in our hands, the natural right of privacy applies. This is great news because this opinion protects another form of our privacy as United States citizens. The Meranda Law Firm, LTD can handle your criminal defense needs—give us a call at either 614-707-4239 (Columbus Office), or 740-349-8000 (Newark Office).