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High Court decides cell phone search case

The United States Supreme Court has the final word with regard to the interpretation of the United States Constitution, including the Fourth Amendment.  The Fourth Amendment prohibits the Government from engaging in unreasonable searches and seizures. It requires, subject to a growing list of exceptions, the Government to obtain a warrant based upon probable cause prior to engaging in a search.

In the case of Riley v. California, the police made a traffic stop of Riley and determined he was driving on a suspended driver’s license.  The Supreme Court long ago held that the police may search a person, as well as the area within his immediate control, without probable cause when the search is made “incident to arrest”.  This exception is based upon police safety and the possibility of the destruction of evidence of a crime.

In making the search incident to Riley’s arrest, police located his cell phone. Thereafter, they explored the contents of his phone and found evidence he was a member of a street gang and may have been involved with a recent murder. This all led to additional charges being filed.

It seems apparent that a cellphone does not present any danger to the officers on the scene. The government argued that the second basis for a warrantless proximity search should be in play, namely, the possibility that a third person, for instance another gang member at a remote location, would erase its contents and thereby destroy incriminating evidence.

The Court disagreed with the Government because the threat of third party evidence destruction is not enough to overcome Fourth Amendment protections.  Moreover, the unanimous decision declined to accept the Government’s argument that a cellphone is no different from an address book, an object that the court long ago held could be searched without a warrant if found on a suspect’s person.

A cellphone, the Court recognized, now contains many highly private details, information, data, photos and Internet links. It is these private items that the Fourth Amendment is designed to protect from Government snooping. The Court even suggested that  a cellphone search could be more intrusive than a home search.

This case is especially important because under previously established DUI law, the police may stop a motor vehicle when they have a “reasonable, articulate-able suspicion” that a crime has been or is about to be committed.  With so little required to stop a driver, any additional erosion of his or her Fourth Amendment rights can lead to a slippery slope of no real rights at all.

The result in Riley was that the search was held illegal.  However, once a court rules a search is illegal, it does not order a dismissal of the charges. Rather, under the Exclusionary Rule, the evidence wrongfully seized is excluded from the jury’s consideration. Its exclusion will ordinarily result in making it impossible to prove the charges upon which the wrongfully seized evidence was based.

In this case, the state would be unable to prosecute the gang related charges because the excluded cellphone search was the only evidence the police had. On the other hand, they could still press forward with the driving suspended charges.

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