Supreme Court: Warrantless Cell Phone Searches Unconstitutional

On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court entered a long-awaited decision in Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 999 (2014), and United States v. Wurie, 134 S. Ct. 999 (2014) regarding whether warrantless searches of cell phones are constitutionally permissible under the search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. For background on the legal issues, read our recent Boston Bar Journal article, “Any Calls, Texts, or Photos May Be Used Against You: Warrantless Cell Phone Searches and Personal Privacy.

In a unanimous decision, the Court held that police officers need a warrant in order to search the cellphones of individuals that they arrest—a ruling that will undoubtedly pave the way for Fourth Amendment privacy rights in today’s digital age.

Although Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, was keenly aware of the vital role that cellphones play in today’s society, including the immense personal and private information that cell phones contain, and the potential implications of allowing police to scrutinize this information on a routine basis, his rationale focused on the fundamental protections embedded within the Fourth Amendment—the right of people to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Although acknowledging precedent for a delineated line of exceptions that permit reasonable warrantless searches, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized that such exceptions are only constitutionally valid when they are justified. For instance, a warrantless post-arrest search is reasonable only if it is justified by either the need to protect police officers or the need to prevent destruction of evidence. In this case, neither justification is present in the context of cell phones. He explicitly noted in the opinion that not only are police officers “able to examine the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon” but, once a police officer has “secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, data on the phone can endanger no one.”

In addition, Chief Justice Roberts explained that the possibility of evidence being destroyed or hidden by “remote wiping” or “data encryption” is remote, speculative and capable of being addressed via other, more targeted, means. Furthermore, recognizing that this decision may very well have an impact on law enforcement’s ability to combat crime, Chief Justice Roberts noted that the Court’s holding is not that cell phones are immune from search, but rather that a warrant will generally be required before a search, even when the cell phone is seized incident to an arrest.

Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that should a police ever confront a dire situation requiring more immediate action, the officer may be entitled to search a cell phone under a supplementary exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement; for instance, one in which there are exigent circumstances. Finally, the Court recognizes that although all “privacy comes at a cost” this categorical rule will “provide clear guidance for law enforcement” while guaranteeing that Fourth Amendment privacy does not “fall out of the picture entirely.”