On June 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that police may not rely on the search-incident-to-lawful-arrest exception to justify a search of an arrestee’s cell phone.  This holding directly disapproves the California Supreme Court’s 2011 holding in People v. Diaz, which previously authorized such searches.  Officers wishing to search the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone must now either obtain a search warrant or rely on another exception to the warrant requirement.

Riley v. California

The Supreme Court’s decision, Riley v. California, arose from an arrest of a suspected gang member for possession of a concealed weapon.  Officers searched the defendant incident to the arrest and seized a smart phone from his pants pocket.  About two hours after the arrest, a gang detective searched the contents of the smart phone and found evidence that was eventually used to support gang enhancements at trial.  The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence found on his phone and the Court of Appeal upheld that ruling, relying on the California Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in People v. Diaz authorizing warrantless searches of cell phones incident to a lawful arrest so long as the cell phone was immediately associated with the arrestee’s person.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, finding that the exception to the warrant requirement for searches incident to a lawful arrest does not apply to data stored on an arrestee’s cell phone.  Finding that cell phones are both qualitatively and quantitatively different from other items found on an arrestee’s person (such as a wallet, purse, or address book), the Court held that in order to search the contents of the cell phone, officers must either obtain a search warrant or rely on some other, case-specific, exception to the warrant requirement, such as the exigent-circumstances exception.

The Lesson for Law Enforcement

In light of this ruling, it is important that all officers understand that the rule in People v. Diaz allowing them to search cell phones incident to a lawful arrest is no longer valid.  Effective immediately, if an officer wants to search the contents of a cell phone, he or she must either obtain a search warrant or possess the requisite specific facts to support another warrant exception, such as consent or exigent circumstances.  Of course such facts should be detailed in the incident report in order to defend against a later motion to suppress or civil lawsuit for unlawful search.

What the Ruling Did not Change

It is also important to note what the Supreme Court did not hold in Riley.

  • First and foremost, the Court did not hold that the seizure of the cell phone itself from the arrestee’s pocket required a warrant.  The seizure of the phone itself was conceded to be valid in the case.  The ruling deals only with the search of the contents (i.e. data) of the cell phone.
  • Second, the Court did not overturn (and implicitly approved) earlier case law finding that searches of wallets, purses, and address books found on an arrestee’s person may lawfully be searched incident to arrest.  The Court also stated that officers may take steps consistent with existing case law to prevent the destruction of evidence on the cell phone while waiting for a warrant, such as powering off the phone, removing its battery, or placing it in a “Faraday bag.”
  • Finally, although the Court generally stated that a warrant is required to search the contents of a cell phone, and the news reports have focused on this general statement, the Court also left ample room for the application of other existing exceptions to the warrant requirement.  The Court noted repeatedly throughout the opinion that in a proper case, the exigent-circumstances exception may permit a warrantless search of a cell phone.  And although not specifically mentioned in the opinion, valid consent to search the cell phone also would obviate the need for a warrant.