Pomerantz LLP

Supremes to Police: Keep Your Hand off that Cell Phone

Pomerantz Monitor, July/August 2014

In an unanimous decision issued on June 25, the Supreme Court held that in most cases the police must obtain a search warrant prior to searching an arrestee’s cell phone. This opinion will affect many of our police organization clients, by hampering the ability of their members to obtain evidence when making an arrest. 

The “search incident to arrest” doctrine allows police to search, without a warrant, the area within the arrested person’s immediate control, to protect officer safety or to prevent escape or the destruction of evidence. The question here was whether an officer is also routinely allowed to rummage through all the files on the arrested person’s cell phone without a search warrant. The Court said no, recognizing that “modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet or a purse.” 

The Court recognized that cell phones are repositories of huge amounts of personal information, such as personal messages, bank statements, photographs, notes, mail, lists of contacts and/or prescriptions. “The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet.” In short, “more or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet.” In short, “more than 90% of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives…” In order to address safety concerns of the police during an arrest, the police remain free to examine “the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon,” but once secured, “data on the phone can endanger no one.” To prevent the suspect from destroying evidence on the phone, the Court said that police could remove the phone’s battery or could place the phone in an enclosure that would prevent it from receiving radio waves. The Court also left open the possibility that in exigent circumstances the police could search the phone immediately. 

However, our police officer clients tell us that, at times, immediate access to information contained on a cell phone could be crucial, leading, e.g., to the rapid capture of an accomplice through the reading of text messages, and waiting for a search warrant could permit the accomplice to get away. This ruling will surely lead to more cell phones being seized, to preserve them for possible future searches after a warrant is obtained.