Supreme Court: Illegal for police to search your phone without a warrant

Charlotte DWI and Criminal Defense Attorney J. Bradley Smith of Arnold & Smith, PLLC answers the question “Can the police search my car without a warrant?”


Of course police want everything off your phone. They want to take it, analyze it, and try to use it to prove you committed a crime.

In their eyes, your phone is like anything else. Anything you say and do – text, email, connect with old friends on social networking sites – can and will be used against you.

Until yesterday.

Police on phone Charlotte DWI Lawyer North Carolina Criminal Defense Attorney    In a June 25, 2014 unanimous decision (and I don’t mean your menu choice for lunch from Moe’s Southwest Grill), the nine justices of the United Supreme Court ruled that police have to get a warrant before they can troll through the contents of your phone.

The case – Riley v. California – began when an officer pulled David Riley over for driving in a car with an expired tag. Things went downhill fast for Riley when the officer learned his license had been suspended and he found two handguns in Riley’s car.

The officer took Riley’s smartphone and searched through the portion of his contacts titled “Crip Killers.” Photos and videos on the phone showed Riley was a member of the Bloods gang and had participated in a shooting weeks before his arrest, officers alleged.

After a trial, Riley was convicted and sentenced to 15-years-to-life in prison.

He appealed, arguing that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution required officers to get a warrant before searching the contents of his smartphone. Some powerful sources lined up against Riley, including the Obama administration, which argued that police have always had free reign to search people’s “letters, diaries, briefcases and purses,” so they should be able to troll through people’s cell phones.

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared to laugh off that assertion in the Court’s opinion, writing that the comparison was “like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the Moon.”

At its essence, Riley v. California brought the slow-motion collision between ever-advancing technology and always-struggling-to-keep-up legal doctrines to the fore. The Obama administration, the State of California and law enforcement in general argued that trolling through someone’s cell phone wasn’t any different from patting down someone down and finding drugs in a cigarette package, as occurred in a famous 1973 case.

The Court saw that case – United States v. Robinson – as materially different from Riley because it only allowed officers “to search a personal item or two in the occasional case.”

Cell phones, by contrast, contain “a digital record of nearly every aspect” of the lives of 90-percent of American adults. The Chief Justice joked that “the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

The privacy interests people have in their phones, therefore, “dwarf those in Robinson,” the Court wrote.

Before the wide distribution of cell phones and mini-computers, a search of a wallet “could have turned up a photograph or two,” but that would not, the Court wrote, “justify a search of thousands of photos in a digital gallery.”

To apply the reasoning from Robinson to cell phones, David Riley would have had to have been strolling “around with video tapes, photo albums, and an address book all crammed into his pockets.”

The bottom line, from the high Court: If the cops want to search through your phone, generally speaking, they need a warrant.

Why generally speaking? Because there are exceptions, and they are somewhat obvious. If a bad guy is in the middle of texting an accomplice who is about to detonate a bomb, an officer can seize the phone and try to stop the bomb from detonating. This is known as the “exigent circumstances” exception.

Whether a search is justified under that exception is decided on a case-by-case basis, and requires courts to “examine whether an emergency justified a warrantless search.”

So for now, unless you are up to some serious no good, your phone is safe.

Arnold & Smith, PLLC is a Charlotte based criminal defense, traffic violation defense and civil litigation law firm servicing Charlotte and the surrounding area. If you or someone you know need legal assistance, please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828   or find additional resources here.


About the Author

jbradley.jpgBrad Smith is a Managing Member of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, where he focuses on the areas of criminal defense, DUI / DWI defense and traffic defense.

Mr. Smith was born and raised in Charlotte. He began his legal career as an Assistant District Attorney before entering private practice in 2006.

In his free time, Mr. Smith enjoys traveling, boating, golf, hiking and spending time with his wife and three children.



Riley v. California:

United States v. Robinson:

Amicus Brief of the United States in Riley v. California:

Riley v. California briefs and responses:

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