Phone Searches


On Tuesday April 29, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments on a very important case that could have long reaching and long lasting effects on our right to privacy. The issue before the Court was whether or not police officers have a right to "search" the contents of a person's cell phone when the owner of the phone is arrested.

It is well established that police officers are allowed to conduct "searches incident to an arrest." What this means is that police officers are entitled to conduct a search of an individual, as well as the area within the individual's wingspan or reach, upon arrest without first obtaining a warrant. This is one of the most common exceptions to the constitutionally provided right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, which was granted to protect US citizens right to privacy from the government. The Supreme Court has determined that these searches are justified for two reasons: 1) in order to keep police officers safe from hidden weapons, and 2) so the person under arrest cannot hide, conceal, tamper with or destroy evidence.

In one of the two underlying cases, police officers in California used evidence that was found on the defendant's phone in order to connect the defendant to gang activity and eventually to an attempted murder. In that case the officers seized the defendant's phone and found evidence of gang affiliation, which the prosecution was able to use to link the defendant to the charged crime.

It is important to note that the defendant's phone was not connected to the original reason officers stopped the defendant. However, the prosecution argued that there was a high chance that any evidence located on the phone could have been destroyed or removed had they had not searched the phone immediately, and this was upheld under California law.

Proponents of including a cell phone's contents within the parameters of the limited exception maintain that searching smart phones help to protect police officers, identify arrestees, and preserve evidence. Supporters argue that phone searches are similar to searching an arrestee's wallet or address book and can help lead to evidence against the suspect. However, the criminal defense lawyers at the Sumner Law Group feel that there are huge differences.

For starters, smart phones contain way more than mere identification information. Although there may be evidence that could be relevant to the charged crime that evidence will most certainly be intermingled with non-relevant private information. Once officers have access to a person's phone, they cannot only find out who the person has been talking to and texting with, but also what Internet searches the person has conducted, they can access the defendant's email, photos, and any and all apps the person may have.

Most of this information is highly personal and could even be confidential in nature. In short, officers would be allowed to intrude into every little facet of a suspect's life on the possibility that there MIGHT be some relevant information contained on the phone.

Additionally, cell phones do not fit in the parameters of why searches incident to arrest are justified. First, phones do not pose a threat to officers. They are not inherently dangerous, and generally are not used as weapons. Second, there is no fear of tampering or destroying evidence that may be contained on the phone.

Police officers have a right hold a suspect's possessions while he or she is in custody and it is not hard for officers to make it so people cannot remotely access or alter the phones contents. Therefore, if information is needed from the phone the investigators have ample time to actually obtain a warrant. Invasions of this nature are the exact reason why the founding fathers included the warrant requirement in the Bill of Rights. Police officers should be required to get permission before being allowed to explore every little detail of a suspect's life.

The criminal defense attorneys at the Sumner Law Group will be following this case closely. It is our job to know all the new developments of criminal law so we can better help our clients. The criminal defense attorneys at the Sumner Law Group have extensive experience dealing with wrongful searches and seizures. We know what police officers are permitted to search and what they are not. If you feel your rights have been violated contact us immediately.