US Supreme Court to decide warrant requirements for cellphone searches

In January 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases dealing with the constitutionality of police searches of cellphones when they arrest people suspected of crimes. These cases demonstrate how difficult it can be for the law to keep pace with advances in technology. The Court's decision in these cases will help resolve a split among lower courts about when police may search cellphones.

Split among courts on cellphone searches

Many courts have struggled to apply traditional Fourth Amendment protections to technological advances. In general, the Fourth Amendment requires police to obtain a warrant to search people's residences or persons. However, as time has passed, several exceptions to the warrant requirement have evolved. One of the most notable exceptions to the warrant requirement is that police may search people at the time of arrest, on the theory that the arrestees may have weapons or be carrying evidence of a crime. Police have used this exception to justify searching the contents of people's cellphones. According to the Washington Post, six lower courts across the U.S. have upheld such searches.

However, privacy advocates have argued cellphones contain information that has long been deemed private and that police should have to obtain warrants to search them even if people are carrying them when arrested. One federal judge noted that phones today may contain photos, email, contact lists, web browsing history, financial and medical records and purchase histories - the type of information that people generally kept in their homes. The judge then ruled Fourth Amendment protections apply to cellphones The Washington Post reports that three courts have required police officers to obtain warrants before searching cellphones.

Two cases before the Court

The first of the cases before the Court involves the arrest of a Massachusetts man for suspicion of selling crack cocaine in 2007. While in police custody, the man's flip-phone kept receiving calls from a number that was labeled "my house." Police traced the number to an address and searched it, where they found drugs and a weapon. A federal appellate court threw out the evidence police found in the search, holding that warrantless cellphone searches are "categorically unlawful."

The second case stems from the arrest of a California man after he was stopped by police for an expired vehicle registration. Police found his license was expired and that there were guns in his car. Police searched the man's smartphone and found what they thought was evidence the man had gang ties, as well as a photo tying him to a vehicle involved in a shooting. The man was eventually convicted of murder and other charges. The California Supreme Court has upheld warrantless police searches arrestees' phones, so the state was able to use the cellphone evidence at his trial.

Speak with an attorney

Facing criminal charges is a serious matter. People need the assistance of a skilled attorney to help make sure that police did not violate their rights at any point in the process and to protect their interests going forward. If you are facing criminal charges, speak with a seasoned criminal defense attorney with the knowledge and skills to present the best defense possible.