The Supreme Court to Hear California Cell Phone Search Case

The United States Supreme Court recently decided to hear a pair of cases raising the issue of whether police can search cell phones without first obtaining a warrant, when the phones are in the possession of defendants at the time of arrest. In Riley v. Davis, the California Court of Appeals for the fourth Appellate District ruled that the police properly searched defendant Davis’s cell phone after finding it in his possession at the time of his arrest.

Search of cell phones that are “immediately associated” with the person

Davis was stopped by police for driving his vehicle with expired tags. As a result of the stop, Davis’s car was impounded and the police searched the vehicle as part of the impound and inventory process. The search of the vehicle led the police to discover two illegal guns. The defendant was immediately arrested for possession of the guns. When he was arrested, the police searched Davis in a routine “search incident to arrest” (SITA) and recovered Davis’s cell phone.  The officers examined the phone and, while examining the defendant’s contacts, the officers discovered signs of gang affiliation. The arresting officer called a detective who specialized in the investigation of gang-related crime.  The detective further examined the contents of Davis’s phone and found photos and videos of Davis that implicated him in a gang-related shooting that occurred approximately one month before his arrest. At Davis’s trial on charges relating to the shooting, the prosecutors sought to introduce the photos and videos, which linked Davis to the charges.  Davis objected to the admission of the photos and videos and filed a pre-trial motion to suppress this evidence. The trial court ultimately ruled that the evidence was admissible and concluded that the police had lawfully searched the cell phone as a routine “bookings search.” The California appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling, and concluded that the search was lawful under the California Supreme Court’s line of authority, which allows police to search items “immediately associated” with the defendant’s person at the time of arrest.

Constitutional rights at stake

The U.S. Supreme Court must now attempt to apply long-developing fourth amendment search and seizure law to the rapidly evolving technology of cell phones. The Pew Research Center recently found that more than 90 percent of American adults have cell phones. Today, those phones are used not just to make phone calls, but also to store large amounts of personal data, including photographs, personal identifying information, and financial data.  If the police were able to access all of this information without a warrant whenever a suspect was carrying a cell phone, there would be a profound change in the way that criminal investigations are conducted in this country. Instead of accumulating evidence based on probable cause, police could execute fishing expeditions. Without any evidentiary basis at all, they could simply seize the cell phones of suspects who are arrested, and they could then mine the phone for personal information that could be used as evidence against the defendant. There are very persuasive arguments to be made against undermining the warrant requirement to this extent and allowing the police to disregard the fundamental constitutional rights of criminal suspects and defendants.

As a former prosecutor, Diana Aizman has extensive experience in protecting the constitutional rights of clients who have been charged with crimes. Contact the Aizman Law Firm right away if you have been charged with a crime.