The United States Supreme Court will soon announce its decisions in two separate but similar cases concerning whether or not individuals who are arrested may have their cellphones searched and related information seized regardless of whether law enforcement officials have obtained warrants to search these devices. This is a critical question, given that an important element of an individual’s right to mount a fair and complete criminal defense is the right to remain free from unreasonable searches and seizures of person and property by the government.
According to the New York Times, more than 90 percent of all adult Americans own cellphones. Of these phones, more than 50 percent are smartphones. These devices may contain a vast wealth of personal information, communication records and tracking logs. As a result, the unreasonable search and seizure of such devices without a warrant may significantly undermine the ability of Americans to mount a fair and complete criminal defense.
In general, law enforcement officers must obtain a properly executed judicial warrant before searching individuals, their homes and their property. In order to obtain a warrant, officers must first demonstrate that they have legitimate probable cause to engage in such searches. If officers are allowed to simply comb the wealth of personal information present on any arrestee’s cellphone, the fundamental principles grounding the Fourth Amendment will almost certainly be compromised.
Exceptions to the warrant requirement exist when waiting to obtain a warrant could compromise public safety or lead to evidence destruction. However, cellphones that are not in use by an arrestee cannot be used to inflict harm and do not have self-destruct capabilities. Therefore, it is difficult to comprehend a scenario in which officers would feel compelled to search cellphone data without first obtaining a warrant to do so.
Source: New York Times, “Smartphones and the 4th Amendment,” April 27, 2014