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Can the police search my cell phone without a warrant?

The United States Supreme Court will decide two cases to determine if the police can search someone's cell phone after an arrest without a warrant.

These two cases are Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie. In both of these cases, police searched the defendants' cell phones with a warrant, found evidence of additional crimes, and charged them. As result of the evidence received from the warrantless searches, the defendants were convicted.

Prosecutor's Argument: Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest (SILA)

Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest (SILA) is the legal theory law enforcement relies on to conduct a warrantless search of a cell phone. SILA holds:

  1. If the police make a lawful arrest;
  2. They can search within the immediate area of the arrestee;
  3. To protect the officers safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.

Law enforcement has argued that cell phones are like purses, wallets, and other personal items that are immediately associated with the arrested person, so the Court has upheld these types of warrantless searches.

Defendant's Argument: 4 th Amendment Rights

The 4 th amendment provides the following:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Jim Harper, an attorney with the Cato Institute, has argued that law enforcement should have to obtain a search warrant because "A cell phone has the same contents that the home did in the founding era, it has digital equivalents of papers, letters, drawings, private financial documents, and private medical documents."

This argument makes sense. Most cell phones are not just phones – they are small computers that people carry every day with secured passwords, medical information, personal contacts, banking information, educational information, religious information, political information, videos, pictures, etc. – things that should not be subject to warrantless searches by law enforcement. Police need to secure a warrant before searching your personal computer; therefore, they should have to obtain a warrant before searching your cell phone.