High court rules warrants generally needed to search cellphones

Police officers will have to obtain warrants before searching cellphones seized during an arrest, ruled the U.S. Supreme Court.

What is the one gadget you never leave home without? If you are like many Americans, your answer is likely your cellphone. According to a Pew Research Center poll, over 90 percent of people in the United States have a cellphone. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case regarding privacy rights surrounding cellphones.

The high court found that law enforcement officers, in most circumstances, must obtain a warrant before searching the contents of an arrestee's cellphone.

Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Americans are protected from "unreasonable searches and seizures." In most cases, police officers must obtain a warrant before they can conduct a search. When an individual is being placed under arrest, however, there is an exception to that rule, allowing officers to perform warrantless searches.

Two cases came before the U.S. Supreme Court - in both, police officers searched an arrestee's cellphone without first obtaining a warrant.

In Riley v. California, a police officer stopped Riley for a traffic violation. His cellphone was seized when he was arrested. Law enforcement officers then searched his phone, without obtaining a warrant. They concluded that Riley had been involved in a shooting that had taken place earlier, and that he was involved in a gang. Consequently, he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in jail.

In U.S. v. Wurie, Wurie was arrested for purportedly taking part in a drug sale. His cellphone was seized, and a search of the phone revealed his home address. Police officers then sought a warrant to search Wurie's home. Upon a search of his home, law enforcement officers uncovered drugs and weapons. He was subsequently convicted on firearms and drug charges.

The unanimous decision

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The Chief Justice concluded that the exception allowing for warrantless searches incident to an arrest does not apply to cellphones. He reasoned that cellphones do not pose an immediate danger to police officers. In addition, he found that the information stored within is not likely to be destroyed during the time necessary to obtain a warrant. He noted that the court's decision may pose additional hurdles for law enforcement, but concluded, "Privacy comes at a cost."

If you are facing criminal charges in North Carolina, take steps to protect your rights. A skilled criminal defense attorney will be able to review the evidence being used against you to determine if it should be inadmissible in court.

Keywords: cellphones, search, U.S. Supreme Court, arrest