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Your Cell Phone Cannot Be Searched Without a Warrant

Posted on in Search Warrant

US Supreme Court, cell phone, Illinois Criminal Defense AttorneySeveral years ago, a California man was pulled over for expired registration tags and, when it was realized the man was driving on a suspended license, his vehicle was impounded. When law enforcement officers conducted an inventory search of the car, they found illegal firearms, and the man was arrested on weapons charges. Incident to the arrest, officers accessed the man’s smartphone and as a result of pictures found on the phone, charged the man with additional crimes, including in connection with a shooting from a few weeks prior. The photos were admitted as evidence during the man’s trial and he was convicted.

SCOTUS Decision

Ultimately, the case, along with a similar one from Massachusetts, found its way to the United States Supreme Court. In a decision sure to have a far-reaching impact on mobile technology and the right to privacy, the high court ruled in favor of the man, agreeing that the evidence against him had been obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

More importantly, Chief Justice John Roberts, in writing the unanimous opinion noted that mobile devices such as cell phones are different "in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person." He also acknowledged the ubiquity of cell phones in modern culture, "which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy."

No Imminent Danger

When a person is arrested, he or she is typically searched for items that pose a physical threat to the arresting officer. Digital data stored on a cellular device, Roberts wrote, presents no such danger. Thus, there is little reason to seek an exemption to Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. The phone may be seized and steps may be taken to prevent remote wiping of data (such as the use of cell signal blocking devices called Faraday bags), but law enforcement officers must secure a warrant based on probable cause before conducting a search of the phone’s contents.

A trial court may consider isolated exceptions to the Supreme Court’s ruling, based on the existence of "fact specific threats [that] may justify a warrantless search of cell phone data." Chief Justice Roberts specifically mentions suspected child abductors and the potential use of a cell phone to detonate a bomb as examples of "extreme hypotheticals" that may be considered.

If an illegal search and seizure has led to criminal charges against you, you need an attorney committed to protecting your rights. Contact an experienced Kane County criminal defense lawyer at the The Law Office of Brian J. Mirandola today.  We will review your case and help you understand your options under the law. Call 847-488-0889 to schedule your free consultation.

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