Do the police need a warrant to search a cell phone?
Police generally do not need a warrant to search a suspect as part of a lawful arrest. Such a search may be limited to the person of the arrestee and the area immediately within their control. However, most of us carry cell phones on our person, so can the police look at all the personal information stored in our phone?
In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the answer is no (see Riley v. California). While officers may search the arrestee to prevent the destruction of evidence or to protect the officer from harm, searching a cell phone serves neither purpose. Instead, the intrusion to a defendant’s privacy far outweighs those concerns. And an officer can protect the phone’s contents from being remotely erased by following certain procedures.
According to the court, cell phones differ from other physical objects because of their immense storage capacity. The court wrote that cell phones could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers. In this digital age, the person who doesn’t carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them is the exception.
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