Supreme Court Accepts Cell Phone Search Case


On Friday, January 17th, the United States Supreme Court agreed to review a California Supreme Court decision about whether a police search of an arrestee’s cell phone violated his Constitutional right to privacy.  Courts throughout the country disagree about this question. . . When can police search the contents of a cell phone?

Most courts, including the Ohio Supreme Court, have held that cell phone searches of a person being arrested are legitimate only if they protect the arresting officers or are necessary to preserve evidence.  The California case is different because the court held that the lawful arrest alone justified the cell phone search.

Generally, police are not allowed to search personal property because of the Fourth Amendment of United States Constitution.  The limits on “search and seizure” bar police from searching personal property if there is a legitimate expectation of privacy.  A legitimate expectation of privacy exists when an individual has the opinion that something is private and this privacy is generally recognized by society.  Searches are only allowed under narrow exceptions to the rule. 

There are two exceptions which allow searches of personal property during an arrest.  The first, Search Incident to Arrest, allows police officers to search the arrestee’s person and the area in the arrestee’s immediate control, including closed containers.  The purpose is to ensure the arresting officers’ safety and to preserve evidence.  The second exception is an Inventory Search, which routinely happens when police impound a vehicle.  Officers protect the state from liability by using a checklist to log items found, so that when the vehicle is returned to the owner there is a record of what it contained.

The case before the United States Supreme Court, Riley v. California, is about a man who was pulled over for driving a car with expired tags, then arrested for driving under a suspended license.  While the officers were conducting the inventory search, they found loaded guns and indicia of gang affiliation.  Then officers searched the cell phone, which was found on Riley’s person, and noticed entries indicating gang affiliation.  Incriminating videos were found during a later search of the cell phone.  The California Supreme Court held that the search was permissible because the cell phone had been immediately associated with Riley’s person when he was arrested.             

Most of the time, police don’t care about your phone.  However, when a lawful search produces guns, drugs, or indicates there may be gang involvement, police may try to get the information from a cell phone and pass it along to another task force.  If the United States Supreme Court affirms the California decision, this will become permissible throughout the country, including Ohio.

Do you have any questions about illegal searches of your car?  Attorney W. Joseph Edwards has over 30 years of experience in criminal law and has represented thousands of clients.  He is available 24/7.  Call for a case evaluation at 614.309.0243.

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