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Warrants required for cell phone searches, court rules

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement officers cannot search a cellphone or smartphone as part of a search incident to arrest.

In a unanimous opinion in Riley v. California, the court found that a constitutional right to privacy extends to personal information contained within smartphones and cellphones, and a warrant must be obtained to search such devices.

“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,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who authored the opinion. “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.”

Roberts wrote that smartphones are also “cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers.” The court acknowledged that there is a risk of phones being remotely wiped or encrypted while a warrant is being sought, but noted that law enforcement could disable a phone by removing its battery or turning it off in order to prevent such action.

Roberts also noted that a phone poses no safety risk to law enforcement officers.

Read the full opinion here.

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