In general, a police officer may not search a cell phone as part of a search incident to lawful arrest. The United States Supreme Court has held that a search incident to arrest includes a search of the arrestee's person and the area within the arrestee's immediate control however, the purpose of a search incident to arrest is to protect the officer's safety and to prevent the destruction of evidence. In the context of a cell phone, this generally won't include searching the phone, because there generally is contraband or weapons that may be stored on the phone.

The scope of a search incident to arrest is limited, and the officer is only allowed to search the phone to the extent that it is necessary to protect the officer's safety or to prevent the destruction of evidence. If the officer wants to search the phone, they generally need to obtain a warrant or establish that an exception to the warrant requirement applies.

It is important to note that the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches of electronic devices, such as cell phones, as well as to searches of other types of property. However, the unique nature of electronic devices may require the application of different standards in certain circumstances.

This case answers the following question: Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014).

Can a police officer search a cell phone as part of a search incident to lawful arrest?

The issue in this case is whether the police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cellphone seized from an individual who has been arrested. There is ample justification for a search of the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control.

This case is actually two cases that were consolidated because they raised a common question. In the first case, Riley was stopped by a police officer for driving with expired registration tags. During the stop, the officer learned that Riley’s license had been suspended, so he impounded the car and conducted an inventory search of the car. Riley was arrested for possession of concealed and loaded firearms that were found during the search. While searching Riley, an officer noticed various items associated with the Bloods street gang and a cellphone. The officer looked through some information on the phone, and a detective later went through the information on the phone as well. The information on the phone helped link Riley to further gang affiliation and an earlier shooting. Riley moved to suppress all evidence found on his cellphone prior to trial. The trial court denied the motion and Riley was convicted.

In the second case, a police officer was performing routine surveillance when he noticed Wurie make an apparent drug sale from a car. Officers arrested Wurie and took him to the police station, where the officers seized two cellphones from him. One of these phones was a flip phone. After arriving at the police station, the police officers noticed the phone was receiving calls from a source named “my house”. The officers went through the phone to determine the phone number linked to the contact my house. They used to number to find an address that led them to an apartment building. Upon arrival, the officers noticed the mailbox said Wurie, so they secured the apartment while obtaining a search warrant. When the officers executed the warrant, they discovered and seized 215 grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a firearm and ammunition, and cash. Wurie moved to suppress the information found in the apartment claiming it came from an unconstitutional search of his cellphone. The District Court denied the motion, and Wurie was convicted. A divided panel of the First Circuit reversed the denial of Wurie’s motion to suppress.

There is ample justification for a search of the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control. This rule was created to prevent harm to officers and destruction of evidence. Neither of these risks are apparent in the search of digital data. Digital data stored on a cellphone cannot be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer. Officers may examine the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that there is nothing that can be used as a weapon. While there is a chance that some evidence could be found in the cellphone, there is no risk of the arrestee deleting this information once the cellphone is secured by the officers. The officer may secure the cellphone, but they must obtain a warrant to examine the data contained on the cellphone.

The Supreme Court of the United States held that officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting a search of data on cellphones. Therefore, the case of Riley is reversed and remanded, and the case of Wurie is affirmed.