Warrantless Cell Phone Searches Ruled Illegal

Cell Phone Searches: Today the US Supreme Court has ruled that cell phone searches without a warrant are illegal. The case, Riley v. California, dealt with two “searches incident to arrest” in which the police searched the defendant’s cell phones, and, based on what they found, obtained additional incriminating evidence. The Court boiled the ruling down to this:

Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple— get a warrant.

Obviously this is an incredibly important ruling for people accused of crimes. Any evidence – such as pictures, videos, addresses, notes, etc. – that is on a person’s cell phone is protected from a police search. Any person facing a criminal charge based on evidence from a cell phone that was searched without a warrant can now ask the court to throw the evidence out. It’s worth discussing what this new Court opinion actually means, and what the ramifications will be down the road.

Search incident to arrest: 

Let’s start off by talking about a “search incident to arrest”. This simply means that if you are arrested, the police officer can search your person without a warrant – i.e. go through your pockets or purse to make sure there are no weapons or contraband.

Example: Let’s say you are arrested for DUI, and have a bag of weed in your pocket. When you are physically arrested, the police will search your pockets, find the weed, and charge you with drug possession on top of your DUI charge.

A search incident to arrest does not mean that the police can search something not on your person, like a locked safe next to you, or that they can then go to your house and search it simply because they arrest you somewhere else.

The justification behind allowing this type of search is to protect the police from someone hiding a weapon or to prevent the arrested person from destroying evidence, like drugs, they have on their person. This happens more than you’d think it would.

(Ok so @_Flor1daWoman didn’t actually have the pot on her person when arrested, but it still proves the point).

How do cell phones fit into this?

Police were claiming that once they arrested someone, they could then make that person unlock their phone and search through the pictures, texts, calls, etc. to find further incriminating evidence as part of the “search incident to arrest”. This is what happened in the Riley v. California case.

Cell phones not included in search incident to arrest:

What the Supreme Court did in Riley v. California was to exclude the information on cell phones from being subject to a search incident to arrest. To search a cell phone, the police will have to get a warrant by a showing of probable cause.h

This doesn’t mean that the police can’t physically search the phone – such as taking off the case to make sure something like a razor blade is hidden inside.

What about police obtaining cell phone location without a warrant?

We’ve written before about the police using warrantless surveillance devices to track people using their cell phone data. While the Court mentioned that a cell phone can be used to track someone’s location when discussing cell phone searches, the ruling didn’t specifically address this issue. The way the Riley v. California opinion is written, however, could mean that the use of such devices without a warrant will be ruled illegal down the road.

Does it matter if it’s not a smart phone?

No. Some background: this case was actually two cases combined into one. The second case, U.S. v. Wurie, was about the police searching for addresses and phone numbers on a “dumb phone” – a flip phone – without a warrant after Wurie was arrested. The Court also ruled that cell phone search illegal.


Our cell phones have become vitally important pieces of our daily lives. This new Supreme Court decision makes cell phone searches without a warrant illegal, which is essential in making sure our privacy is protected.