The United States Supreme Court strengthened an individual’s right to be free from unlawful search and seizures last week when it ruled that, barring certain limited exceptions, law enforcement may not search a criminal suspect’s cell phone without a warrant.
Riley v. California Bans Warrantless Cell Phone Searches
Riley v. California involved two defendants, David Riley and Burma Wurie.
Riley’s car was impounded in California after he was pulled over for having expired registration tags and driving with a suspended license. His car was impounded, and a routine inventory search uncovered concealed and loaded firearms. Riley was then arrested, and an officer seized and searched his cell phone, which showed evidence of gang-related activity. The evidence found on the phone resulted in Riley being further charged with attempted murder, assault with a semi-automatic weapon and firing at an occupied vehicle.
In the second case, Wurie was arrested after police observed him making a drug sale from his car. At the police station, officers seized his phone and, after noticing several calls coming in to the phone from a caller identified as “my house,” opened and searched the phone until they determined the number associated with “my house.” They traced the number to an address and obtained a search warrant, where they uncovered drugs and firearms.
Both Riley and Wurie sought to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of law enforcement’s search of their cell phones, arguing that it violated their protections against unlawful search and seizure.
Law enforcement may stop and frisk an individual if they believe the person was, or is about to, commit a crime, and the frisk may only be to search for weapons to protect the officer’s safety or to prevent evidence from being destroyed. Known as a search incident to an arrest, the Court pointed out that cell phones do not fall within this exception.
In prior cases, the Court had ruled that searching a crumpled cigarette pack found in a suspect’s pocket was reasonable. However, the Court refused to extend that standard to cell phones, which the court noted contain massive quantities of private data, and a search of an arrestee’s phone is much more invasive than looking in a cigarette pack taken from his pocket.
Furthermore, the court noted that there is no danger of an officer’s being harmed from a cell phone (while the cigarette pack could have contained unknown weapons). Without the risk of harm, a search of the cell phone – even if done following a lawful search and seizure – is not allowed without a warrant.
Chicago Search and Seizure of Cell Phones
How does the Supreme Court’s ruling affect residents of Chicago and the rest of Illinois? United States Supreme Court decisions that deal with constitutional issues apply to every state. Therefore, the Court’s ruling prevents Chicago area law enforcement from lawfully seizing and searching your cell phone or other similar digital device without first obtaining a warrant.
Keep in mind, however, that the Court’s ruling does not prevent law enforcement officers from asking an arrestee if they can search his phone, or from searching it if they have consent. So if a Chicago police officer stops you and asks to see your cell phone, whether you have been arrested or not, your answer should always be no. If you consent, anything law enforcement finds on your phone can be used against you in court.
If an officer searches your phone without a warrant, it is important that you contact a criminal defense attorney with experience handling search and seizure cases. It may be possible to have the charges brought against you dismissed if any evidence is in any way related to a warrantless search of your cell phone. Continue reading