Police are now required to obtain a warrant before searching the cellphone of a person who has been placed under arrest, according to the United States Supreme Court. With certain limited exceptions, the Court's recent ruling establishes that warrantless cellphone searches by police are unconstitutional.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits police from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures. The exact meaning of "unreasonable," however, depends on the circumstances.
Search incident to arrest
When a person is lawfully arrested - meaning that the arrest is supported by probable cause - police generally do not need a warrant to conduct an initial search of the suspect's vehicle or personal belongings, such as a backpack, purse or briefcase.
This type of search, known as a search incident to arrest, allows officers to search for concealed weapons or other evidence of criminal activity that may be within the suspect's reach. It is thought to be reasonable because it helps protect officers' safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.
In contrast, police are usually required to obtain a warrant before they can conduct a search of a person's home. This is because there is thought to be a higher expectation of privacy within the home than in a vehicle or in public.
Thus, a police search of the home is thought to be more invasive and therefore requires a greater degree of justification to be considered reasonable. Except in emergencies and certain other limited circumstances, a police search of the home without a warrant is considered unreasonable and is therefore barred by the Fourth Amendment.
Court says cellphone searches are highly invasive
The central issue in the recent case was whether cellphone searches should be treated more like searches incident to arrest or home searches. The Court ruled unanimously for the latter.
More than 90 percent of adults in the United States own cellphones, the Court reasoned in its written opinion, and these devices often contain digital records of nearly every aspect of the owner's life. Using the information contained on or accessible through a person's cellphone, such as emails, photographs, internet search records and other data, it is possible to reconstruct the owner's personal life in great detail. Thus, the Court concluded, cellphones deserve a higher degree of protection from police searches.
Evidence obtained from illegal searches may be barred
When police violate a person's constitutional rights by conducting an unlawful search, it is sometimes possible to stop any evidence discovered during that search from being used in court. If you have been arrested for a crime, be sure to talk to a lawyer to learn more about your rights and the options that are available to help protect your interests.