Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Supreme Court Limits Cell Phone Searches After Arrest

The United States Supreme Court recently published an opinion regarding police officers’ authority to search cell phones after an arrest.  Law nerds like myself think it’s cool to say “SCOTUS” (pronounced SKO-tus) instead of the Supreme Court of the United States.  It makes us sound pretty cool.  Trust me.  Anyway, SCOTUS held that an arrest alone does not justify the warrantless search of a cell phone on someone’s person.  All Justices concurred.

Wait, what?  No – not the cell phone thing.  The last thing.  Did you just say “all Justices?”  Like…all of them agreed!?

Yes, avid blog reader.  I did.  Roberts wrote the opinion, and Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer,  Sotomayor, and Kagan joined in the opinion.  Alito wrote a separate opinion concurring.  They all came together in a glorious pile of truth and togetherness.  You could barely tell where each of them ended and the next began.

So here’s the very simplified version – SCOTUS took on 2 cases where each individual (Riley and Wurie) was arrested.  The police in both cases took the arrestee’s cell phone, learned more about the arrestees, and based on the newly learned information, charged each fella with some new charges.

It’s long been decided that the police can generally search you/your clothes after you are arrested.  This concept is rooted in the need for police safety – because you never know what some yay-hoo is going to have in their pocket or in a purse.  But it’s also been long decided that this type of search only goes so far.  If police officers find keys in your pocket, that doesn’t mean they can go to your house, use the key and walk on in, just because they found a key. 

But where is the line drawn?  What if they find a cigarette pack – can they look inside?  Generally, they can look into small containers because, again, it could be a safety issue. 

However, the police officers in the new Riley and Wurie cases weren’t looking for something that could possibly be dangerous.  They were looking for data.  And modern cell phones contain a lot of it.  SCOTUS reasoned at length about the modern advances in cell phone technology – how they can operate as address books, televisions, libraries, photo albums, video recorders, etc.

One of the fun quotes from the opinion is this:

“Robinson is the only decision from this Court applying Chimel to a search of the contents of an item found on an arrestee’s person (we’re talking about wallets, purses, address books, etc.)…The United States asserts that a search of all data stored on a cell phone is “materially indistinguishable” from searches of these sorts of physical items.  That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.  Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together.
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.”  Emphasis added.

And truthfully, this should have been an easy opinion for SCOTUS to come to.  When you’re talking about a “search incident to arrest” you know a couple of things. 1) The police are alleging that the person in question committed some sort of crime, and 2) That person is already in custody.  With those 2 things in mind, it isn’t difficult for police to get a warrant.

Also – it’s not just EASY to get a warrant in that situation, the process is FAST.  Police officers can even get warrants by email these days.

Cell phones are too vast to allow easy access for government intrusion.  Some people keep their whole lives on those things.  Pictures, video, documents, the list goes on.  20 years ago nobody carried around their birth certificate, social security card, and every piece of mail they’ve ever gotten.  Now with a few decent apps, you can carry all of your lifelong documentation at the click of a button.

SCOTUS got it right this time.  If you want to read the entire text of the decisions, click here:

If you’ve been arrested, you should get a lawyer.  I am such a lawyer.  Call me at 502.618.4949 and as for me, Greg Simms.

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