In the recent case of Riley v. California, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that search warrants are required to investigate the digital content of a suspect's cell phones. The Court found the term "cell phone" to be misleading and called them mini-computers with the capacity to be used as a telephone. The storage capacity and personal information on a cell phone can be more revealing than a search of someone's purse or house. Cell phones contain many types of personal information such as bank statements, address books, photos, along with the dates of when that information was collected by the phone. The Court found privacy issues to be of the utmost concern because the immense amount and variety of data stored on cell phones reveal far more than searches of other personal property.
The ruling was based in part on The Court's previous trilogy of rulings in Chimel, Robinson, and Gant, which grant police the right to search a suspect upon arrest. Chimel establishes the legal foundation for searches upon arrest in order to preserve evidence and protect police officers. The Court's ruling in Robinson declared warrantless searches of a suspect reasonable upon arrest. Chadwick limited such searches to "personal property immediately associated with the" suspect. Finally, Gant gives police the right to a warrantless search of a vehicle for evidence of the crime.
Addressing the basis for searches upon arrest, The Court reasoned that the data stored on the cell phone cannot be used as a weapon. However, the Court did grant police the right to see if any weapons were hidden in the cell phone. The Court also discussed the futility of attempting to preserve the digital contents of cell phones while recommending alternative methods to do so. The Court reasoned that a warrantless search of the phone would do little to prevent data encryption and remote wiping.
The Court held that the exigent circumstances exception applies to allow a warrantless search of cell phones in case of a sudden emergency. If the police believe a suspect's cell phone data will be succumb to remote wiping or data encryption, a warrantless search can be justified by the exigent circumstances exception. However, the exigent circumstances exception requires a court to examine whether the emergency justified the warrantless search. Overall, The Court balanced the intrusion of privacy while promoting the government's interest in protecting officers and preserving evidence to hold that a search warrant is required to investigate the digital data on a suspect's cell phone.
Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ____ (2014).