The Lawletter Vol 39 No 6
In what some commentators have described as the most important criminal law decision of its 2013-2014 Term, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014), that before police may search the contents of a cell phone seized after an arrest, they must first obtain a search warrant. In reaching this determination, which is a departure from the Court's general rule that a person's belongings may be searched without a warrant incident to an arrest of that person, the Court found that "[c]ell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee's person." Id. at 2489. In fact, the Court noted, many cell phones are actually minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone, and they could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers. The Court found that because cell phones are both a repository of sensitive personal data, with immense storage capacity, and a portal to private records stored on remote servers, they simply could not fairly be said to be analogous to physical containers under the search-incident-to-arrest rule.
The Court recognized that its decision will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime, but it noted that some case-specific exceptions to the warrant requirement would still be applicable to the search of cell phones, such as the presence of exigent circumstances that would require an immediate search to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence or to locate an immediately dangerous instrumentality, such as explosives.