U. S. Supreme Court Rules Cell Phone Searches Incident to Arrest Require Search Warrant

On June 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court, in Riley v. California, issued a decision holding that, except under "exigent circumstances," law enforcement officers may not search digital information on cell phones seized incident to arrest without a search warrant. Digital information includes, but is not limited to, photographs, call logs, email and text communications, contacts, and calendars.

"Exigent circumstances" which would allow warrantless searches include the need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence in individual cases, to pursue a fleeing suspect, and to assist persons who are seriously injured or are threatened with imminent injury.

The Court's decision noted that if law enforcement officers seize a cell phone in an unlocked state, the officer may disable the cell phone's automatic-lock feature in order to prevent the cell phone from locking and encrypting data, under the principle which allows the officer to take reasonable steps to secure a scene to preserve evidence while awaiting a warrant.

The Court's ruling does not impact a law enforcement officer's ability to search the physical aspects of a cell phone to ensure it cannot be used as, and does not contain, a weapon.