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Privacy and Technology- U.S. Supreme Court Rules Warrantless Cell Phone Search Unconstitutional

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"Privacy is not something that I am entitled to, it's an absolute prerequisite."  -Marlon Brando

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Federal Narcotics Trafficking Defense Lawyer, Harrisburg, PA

The Defendant, Riley, was stopped for a traffic violation, which eventually led to his arrest on weapons charges. An officer searching Riley incident to the arrest seized a cell phone from Riley's pants pocket. The officer accessed information on the phone and noticed the repeated use of a term associated with a street gang. At the police station two hours later, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the phone's digital contents. Based in part on photographs and videos that the detective found, the State charged Riley in connection with a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier and sought an enhanced sentence based on Riley's gang membership.  Riley moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone. The trial court denied the motion, and Riley was convicted. The California Court of Appeal affirmed.  The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.

In an companion case heard together with Riley, Defendant Wurie was arrested after a warrant was obtained for his arrest in a drug sale.  Upon arrest, a cell phone was seized and opened.  The call log was accessed and the number traced lead the police to obtain a search warrant for Wurie's home where they found drugs and weapons.  Wurie moved to suppress the evidence based upon the search warrant issued from the search of the phone.

Legal Precedence

Three cases that permit searches incident to a lawful arrest are Chimel v. California (search incident to arrest of area subject to lawful control of arrestee in order to protect officer safety and prevent evidence destruction); U.S. v. Robinson (cigarette pack found on arrestee subject to search, even when there is no specific concern about safety or destruction of evidence); and AZ v. Gant (search of car pursuant to arrest where arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of passenger compartment).


The digital data stored on a cell phone does not present the Chimel risk (officer safety and evidence destruction), Robinson search not similar where the search of a cigarette pack was a minor intrusion.  Cell phones differ in a quantitative and qualitative sense.  Here the court discusses the immense storage capacity, GPS, "apps," mini-computer capability of cell phones in this era.  Warrant is required to search a cell phone's data.

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