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Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.

Riley v. California, 573 U.S. __, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (2014).

This case addresses the following issue:

Can police search the contents of a cell phone found on an arrested individual without obtaining a warrant?

This case deals with whether any exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment allows police to search the contents of a cell phone without first obtaining a search warrant. Id. at 2480. Lower courts had split on this question, with some finding that the search incident to lawful arrest (aka SILA or SITA) outlined in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969) allowed such searches. Id. at 2481, 2483. However, the Court found that the purposes behind SILAs—to ensure officer safety from weapons on or near an arrestee and to ensure evidence is not destroyed—were not served by allowing the search of the contents of a cell phone. Id. at 2484-85. Thus, a warrant is required before the contents of a cell phone may be searched. Id. at 2485.

This case was actually two matters consolidated on appeal. Id. at 2480. In each case, the defendant was arrest and each’s cell phone was discovered in their pockets. Id. at 2481-82. The police search the contents of each cell phone: text messages, videos, and photographs in one matter; photos and call logs in another. Id. In each case, evidence uncovered by the search of the cell phones led to convictions of each individual. Id. The Court consolidated the matters based upon their common issue: “whether police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.” Id. at 2480.

The Court began by tracing the history of SILAs, which were first mentioned by the Court in 1914. Id. at 2482. The scope of such searches, however, is much less clear, particularly concerning “the extent to which officers may search property found on or near the arrestee.” Id. at 2483. In Chimel, the Court outlined that a SILA concerning the area immediately surrounding an arrestee could be searched with the purpose “to protect officer safety or to preserve evidence.” Id. Based upon this purpose, the area to be searched must be limited to “the area within [individual’s] immediate control.” Id.

However, in the context of a SILA concerning the arrestee’s body, the Court adopted a more expansive view of the permissible scope. Id. at 2483-84. In United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973), it was held permissible for an officer to further examine personal property found on an arrestee, including opening a cigarette package. Id. at 2483. This search was permissible, even without satisfying the two aims of Chimel, because such personal property was “immediately associated with the person of the arrestee” and required “no additional justification.” Id. at 2483-84.

Despite the more permissive scope of “property-on-person” SILAs, the Court found that digital data should be treated differently. Id. at 2485. First, the digital content of cell phones is solely data, thus both limited and nonlethal to officers. Id. Additionally, the danger of destruction of evidence is not strong enough to justify such warrantless searches. Id. Any danger of information on a cell phone being destroyed, even while the phone is seized by the police, can be handled by an exception of exigent circumstances—not by allowing the warrantless search of the digital data of all cell phones. Id. at 2487-88. Thus, the arrest of an individual permits the physical examination of a cell phone found on the individual’s person, but not the examination of its digital contents. Id. at 2495.

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