July 21, 2014 Articles

Searching Cell Phones Incident to Arrest: There's an App for That—A Warrant!

Two recent cases prove the viability of the Fourth Amendment in the digital age.

By Mickey H. Osterreicher – July 21, 2014

It is well settled that a warrantless search may be found reasonable only in cases where it occurs under a specifically articulated exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously refused to expand that exception in Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ___ (2014). Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts held that “police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.”

In granting certiorari, the Court agreed to hear two cases. Riley v. California, No. D059840 (Cal. App., Feb. 8, 2013) and U.S. v. Wurie, 728 F.3d 1 (First Circuit, 2013). David Riley was challenging his conviction on a number of gang-related charges using evidence obtained from a warrantless search of his cell phone. In the case of Brima Wurie, the Justice Department was challenging the ruling by the First Circuit vacating two counts of Wurie’s conviction, and reversing the denial of his motion to suppress incriminating evidence subsequently obtained with a warrant, because it was “fruit from the poisonous tree” of information found on his cell phone, which had been searched without a warrant. As a result of the Supreme Court decision, the conviction in Riley was reversed and remanded, while in Wurie, the First Circuit ruling was affirmed.

Prior to Riley there was a split among state and federal courts over the “cell phone search-incident-to-arrest” doctrine. The Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits had ruled that officers may conduct searches pursuant to certain standards encompassing evidence preservation and officer safety. Such rulings were adhered to by the Supreme Courts of Georgia, Massachusetts, and California, while some courts in the First Circuit and the Supreme Courts of Florida and Ohio had not followed those findings.

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