New Supreme Court case bans warrantless cellphone searches

When you are lawfully arrested by police officers, they may perform a search of your person and the area within your immediate reach without a warrant. This is known as a "search incident to arrest." Any incriminating evidence discovered during a search incident to arrest can be used against you in a misdemeanor or felony criminal prosecution.

Normally during a search incident to arrest, police are allowed to open unlocked containers they find during the search. For instance, police could open and look inside a sunglasses case found in your pocket during a search incident to arrest. But what about a very different kind of container? Your cellphone contains contacts, phone numbers, call records, text messages and a variety of other types of information. If you have a smartphone, social media apps, GPS features and other advanced functionalities may provide even greater amounts of evidence.

In the recent case Riley v. California, the nation's highest court ruled on whether or not police should be allowed to search cellphones incident to arrest without first obtaining a warrant.

Warrantless search of electronic contents of a cellphone generally not justified

There were two defendants in Riley, each of whom was convicted of a number of serious offenses after police found incriminating evidence in cellphones obtained without a warrant in searches incident to arrest. The defendants' cases progressed through the appeals process before finally arriving at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the electronic contents of cellphones cannot be searched without a warrant as part of a search incident to arrest. A cellphone - and the wealth of private information contained on or accessible through it - is very different from cigarettes, wallets or other items a person is likely to be carrying at the time of arrest, the justices reasoned.

According to the Court, the original reasoning behind allowing police to conduct a warrantless search incident to arrest, uncovering hidden weapons for the protection of the officers and preventing the destruction of evidence, is not applicable to a cellphone search. The huge privacy interest in a cellphone outweighs law enforcement interests in performing a warrantless search after an arrest.

Although the case did not explicitly say so, it almost certainly also applies to any computer evidence in criminal cases obtained through a warrantless search incident to arrest, as laptops, tablets and other computing platforms have many of the same functionalities as a modern smartphone.

What Riley and similar cases mean for you if you are facing criminal charges

For one of the defendants in Riley, the new Supreme Court decision means a review of his case, this time considered without the cellphone evidence; for the other defendant, the result is not as cheery, since one of his convictions that carried a 20-year sentence was upheld on other grounds. For you, Riley means that if you are being charged with a crime and officers obtained evidence off your cellphone without a warrant, you may be able to get that evidence thrown out.

Challenging illegally obtained evidence is one of the best strategies available to contest criminal charges. The new rule disallowing warrantless cellphone searches is just one in a vast array of evidentiary guidelines that can allow your lawyer to get evidence against you excluded. Get in touch with a criminal defense attorney today if you are facing criminal accusations, and ensure that any evidence gathered in violation of your rights cannot be used against you.