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Can San Antonio Police Search My Phone Without A Warrant?

The Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment, and the iPhone6

In June 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court answered an important question about how to apply the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches in the era of smart phone technology. In Riley v. California, the Court held that when an individual has been lawfully arrested, police must first obtain a warrant before searching the contents of any cellular phones that they seize pursuant to the arrest.

Riley arose from several cases involving defendants being convicted of crimes based on evidence discovered on their cellular phones. In each case, the searches were justified under the "search incident to arrest" doctrine set out in Chimel v. California. Under this doctrine, officers are allowed to conduct warrantless searches of the suspect's immediate area in order to prevent the suspect from reaching for a weapon or destroying evidence. Police officers in California arrested the main petitioner, David Leon Riley, after initially stopping him for a traffic violation and subsequently finding firearms in his car. The officers confiscated Riley's phone and found photographs and videos that tied him to an area gang. The officers used the evidence of Riley's gang affiliation to tie him to a previous gang-related shooting. Riley was convicted of that crime and received a sentence of fifteen years to life in prison.

Riley's case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, where the key question was whether the arresting officers had violated his Fourth Amendment liberties by conducting a warrantless search of his cellular phone. The Court unanimously found that Riley's rights had been violated and that the "search incident to arrest" doctrine did not apply to cases involving cellular phones. A key piece of the Court's reasoning was that the digital contents of a cell phone could not be used to threaten the safety of arresting officers. Moreover, police can take many measures to prevent any remote destruction of digital evidence, including removing the phone's battery or placing it in a bag made of aluminum foil.

The importance of the ruling cannot be overstated. It answered an important question about how to apply the privacy protections of the Fourth Amendment in an era of increasingly sophisticated technology. Smartphones such as the iPhone, Android, and Samsung Galaxy are all capable of holding vast amounts of data that in many cases contain sensitive information about people's finances and personal lives. In fact, the Court's opinion made several references to how attached American's have become to their phones, even citing studies that found that a growing percentage of people spend most of their day within a five foot radius of their cellular phone.

It should be noted that police may still perform warrantless searches of a suspect's phone under the exigent circumstances exception—that is, a rare emergency situation in which obtaining a warrant would be impractical or dangerous. Additionally, even if police obtain a warrant, they may find the cell phone's manufacturer uncooperative. The iPhone 6, for example, is equipped with a new operating system—iOS8—that states in its user agreement that Apple will never bypass a phone's passcode encryption system without the user's consent. The language of Apple's user agreement has led at least one law professor to speculate that the new operating system effectively makes search warrants meaningless in cases where a cell phone contains a passcode lock.

Don't let law enforcement take advantage of you. Any defense lawyer has seen the rights of many individuals infringed upon based on police using their ignorance of the law against them. The second police become involved in any situation, retain the services of an attorney that can help. At The Law Office of Guillermo Lara Jr., we have availability 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When you need us, we are here for you. Call now!

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