U.S. Supreme Court: Warrants needed to search cellphones

In 2009, a man was pulled over for a traffic violation. According to NBC San Diego, law enforcement proceeded to search his pockets and his cellphone, finding references to gang activity. Using the phone as evidence, law enforcement arrested him in connection with a shooting, and he was later convicted of attempted murder.

In another case, law enforcement arrested a Boston man after witnessing him take part in selling drugs. Officers took the man’s cellphone while he was at the police station and gleaned evidence from it in order to determine where the man lived. They then obtained a search warrant, went to the man’s home, and found ammunition and firearms that led to an additional weapons charge. The man appealed the second charge, and an appeals court ruled in his favor but left the initial charge in place.

These cases recently prompted the nation’s highest court to review when law enforcement are able to search cellphones for evidence.

The ruling

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court issued the following:

  • In general, authorities must have a warrant prior to the search.
  • The justices ruled that the California Supreme Court will have to review the case involving the gang activity.
  • In regard to the case in Boston, the justices upheld the appeals court ruling but left the initial conviction in place.

Delivering the opinion of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts reminded lower courts that the Fourth Amendment offers protection against unreasonable searches. He notes that many people in the U.S. store sensitive information in their phones, which is why they deserve the same protection as other private items. Now, people facing a criminal charge will have an added layer of protection when it comes to guarding their privacy.

The exception

According to the ruling, there are few instances in which law enforcement will not have to secure a warrant in order to conduct a cellphone search. These exceptions are limited to situations in which the arresting officers feel either their lives or the lives of others are threatened.

For example, the Associated Press illustrates a case in California in which evidence found on a smartphone indicated the accused party had attempted the murder of another person. The defendant argued that the phone’s evidence should not be allowed due to a warrantless search, based on the recent Supreme Court ruling. However, the courts ruled that the evidence would not be thrown out due to its life-threatening nature, and the conviction was upheld.

Anytime a cellphone is used against someone who has been arrested, an attorney should be contacted.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

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