What To Do if an Officer Asks to See Your Cellphone

January 16, 2018 Written by Ryan Witt

The Supreme Court in Riley v. California now requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant prior to searching a cell phone. At the Witt Law Group, we provide criminal defense in Kitsap and Pierce Counties and always challenge unlawful searches and seizures.

The United States Supreme Court in Riley v. California made its first real step into the digital age. Historically, the Fourth Amendment prohibits warrantless searches and seizures unless the facts on a case by case basis give rise to a specific and well accepted exception to the warrant requirement. In other words, Officers need to obtain a warrant – unless a well-recognized exception to that requirement is present. A long established exception to the warrant requirement is “search incident to arrest.”

Previously, once a person was lawfully arrested, nearly everything that the arrested person had control over could be searched “incident to arrest.” This is how cell phones and their data had been treated up until Riley v. California.

In Riley v. California, the Court acknowledged the unique personal interests in “digital content” and departed from their prior holdings. Now, after this ruling in 2014, an Officer must get a warrant signed by a judge before they can search the data on a phone.

The State, opposed to the burden of having to obtain a warrant, argued that they needed the ability to search quickly due to officer safety. The Court thankfully realized that digital content – unlike physical objects – does not directly endanger police.

Cell phones have immense storage capacity and house a vast array of information that goes well into the owners past. This ruling is acknowledged as a real victory by privacy advocates and change of the times for the U.S. Supreme Court. At the Witt Law Group, we handle many of our criminal defense cases by challenging the validity of the search and seizure. Contact our one of our offices to see if we can help you with your case.  We have offices in Bremerton and Gig Harbor for your convenience.