Law Blog

Victory for 4th Amendment Protections, The Supreme Court Says Officers Must Get a Search Warrant Before They Can Search Your Cellphone

By Lonnie L. McDowell, Esq., McDowell & Associates, Attorneys

In a stunning defeat for prosecutors, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that police need a search warrant in order to search the contents of your smartphone. The ruling comes as a result of the California case of gang member David Riley’s appeal of a decision of the California Court of Appeal. In that case, the court analogized that information on a smartphone was akin to information on a piece of paper which police could pull out of a suspect’s pocket and legally read. The United States Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that law enforcement officers needed to first obtain a search warrant before searching a cellphone’s contents.

This ruling is great news as it shows a moderation of the Supreme Court. In recent years, the Supreme Court has allowed exception after exception to the 4th amendment, slowly eroding its protection. The Riley ruling’s impact, however, will be divided.

For everyday Americans, the ruling means that if stopped during a traffic stop, or for routine questioning, the police will not be able to search their phones. Further, if they don’t have probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime on your phone, they will not be able to get a judge to issue a warrant.

Probable cause is established by facts and circumstances within an officer’s knowledge sufficient to warrant a reasonable belief that a crime has been, or is being, committed. It is not necessary that the officer possess knowledge of facts sufficient to establish guilt. In other words, just barely more than just a suspicion is required.

Unfortunately for Mr. Ryley and other gang members, drug dealers, etc., the new ruling regarding cellphone searches will probably provide little protection. The probable cause necessary for police to obtain a warrant to search someone’s phone is a very low standard. While officers will not be able to stop someone walking down the street on pretext and search his/her phone, it won’t take much for them to obtain a warrant to search a suspected criminal’s phone.

In the case of known gang members or drug dealers, officers probably already know the individuals. They know their habits, customs, and practices. They know how they operate. Many gang members or drug dealers are on probation or parole and are immediately subject to search as one of the conditions of their probation/parole.

Law enforcement and the courts have also labeled cellphones as an instrument used in furtherance of the gang’s activities or drug sales. Therefore, almost any time a known gang member or dealer is stopped and searched, the mere fact that the individual is carrying a cellphone may give officers probable cause to obtain a warrant

While some officers may have to work a bit harder in order to find legitimate probable cause in order to obtain a warrant, for officers in most cases, getting a warrant before searching a cellphone will be little more than a formality.