Supreme Court Limits Law Enforcement’s Ability to Search Arrestee Cell Phones

In a 9-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. Significantly, the ruling, in the case of Riley v. California is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is that a warrant is generally required before a search.

The IACP, along with a number of other law enforcement and public safety organizations, had filed an Amicus Brief in the case arguing there was a compelling governmental interest in searching cell phones incident to arrest in all cases. In addition, the IACP brief argued that, at a minimum, the Court should grant law enforcement officials the leeway to search cell phones incident to arrest when they have reason to believe the phones contain evidence of past, present, or future crime. IACP’s key concern was that an immediate search—rather than waiting the several hours it can take to obtain a warrant—is the only way to fully protect law enforcement’s profound interest in preventing the destruction of potentially important evidence and helping to solve and prevent future crimes.
Unfortunately, the court did not adopt that standard. However, it did make clear that the “exigent circumstances” exception to the warrant requirement continue to apply to the search of digital information on cell phones.

Stated IACP President, Chief Yousry “Yost” Zakhary (City of Woodway, Texas) “Today’s decision from the Supreme Court is disappointing and will undoubtedly impact law enforcement’s ability to investigate and combat crime. However, I am confident that that the dedicated men and women of the law enforcement profession will be able to overcome this obstacle and continue their tireless mission to protect the citizens and communities they serve.”

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