A week or so ago I indicated the Supreme Court of the United States had heard oral argument on the issue as to whether the police may search the content of a person’s cell phone, without a warrant, when that person is arrested. In Riley v. California, SCOUTS unanimously ruled that such a warrantless search violated the 4th Amendment. This is the right call. In fact, the Ohio Supreme Court had already made the same decision a few years ago.
As noted in my earlier post, the argument the state asserted was that the search is constitutional under the “search incident to arrest” exception to the warrant requirement. That is nonsense. That exception is aimed at two overriding policy considerations: (1) to protect officers from the use of weapons, and (2) to prevent the destruction of evidence. Neither of those justifications are present in context of searching data on a cell phone.
Unlike searching the pockets and bags of an arrestee, a cell phone is not capable of concealing a weapon. Also, any evidence of a crime that may be stored on a cell phone is not in danger of being destroyed once the police seize the phone and the defendant is in handcuffs. Because neither of the justifications for the exception advanced by the government are even arguably present, the Court ruled that police must seek a warrant. This is a win not only for privacy, but logic.