Can the Police Search My Cell Phone in California?In most circumstances, police in California cannot search a cell phone without first obtaining a warrant. However, police can take a cell phone prior to an arrest if they believe it may be used as a weapon, in order to secure police safety.
The Fourth Amendment protects the privacy interests of United States citizens, and does not allow unreasonable searches and seizures by police without a warrant. A warrant is a document signed by a judge allowing search of an item or a location, after police have provided information detailing probable cause of why the search must be conducted to investigate a crime.
Until recently, the law on whether or not cell phones could be searched by police without a warrant was unclear. In the case Riley v. California, the United States Supreme Court has ruled in a unanimous decision that police must obtain a warrant before searching cell phones.
Riley v. CaliforniaThe Supreme Court case was based on two cell phone searches in two separate cases, one involving a smart phone and the other a flip phone. The defendant, David Leon Riley, was pulled over in a routine traffic stop when police discovered firearms in his car. Police seized his phone and looked through his contacts, photos, and messages and arrested him for a shooting unrelated to the traffic stop.
How has the law changed?Prior to the Supreme Court decision, it was routine for police to take a cell phone during an arrest and look through it for more information. This was typically allowed as a “search incident to arrest” during which police can look through items that were in a person’s possession, such as a car or their clothing at the time when that person was arrested. The purpose of a search incident to arrest is to protect officer safety and to prevent the destruction of evidence. Police can still take other personal items such as a wallet and look through it to find cards, slips of paper, and other personal items. Before the Riley v. California ruling, it was unclear whether the Fourth Amendment protected electronic data.
In its landmark decision in Riley v. California, the Supreme Court commented that there is no way for a person to delete data on a phone once a phone has been secured in police possession. Thus, police can take possession of the phone after an arrest and keep it in a secure location without looking at its contents until a warrant is obtained from a judge. The Court noted a growing prevalence of cell phones and smart devices, ruling that there is a significant privacy interest when thousands of personal photos, documents, contacts, emails, and messages can be stored on a single device.
Subsequent to the Supreme Court decision, a warrant-less cell phone search is now deemed unconstitutional. Though Riley v. State originated as a California case, the decision now applies to all 50 states. Photo by Jonathan Lyman / CC BY