That’s what David Riley learned after being pulled over for driving with expired registration tags and (police soon discovered) an expired license, along with two concealed handguns. Suspecting that Riley might be a member of the Bloods street gang, the arresting officer seized his smartphone and handed it over to detectives at the station house, who “went through” it “looking for evidence.” He found “a lot of stuff” as he probed the files on the phone — including videos suggestive of gang involvement and a photo of Riley with a car police had tied to a shooting weeks earlier.
What he didn’t find, however, was a judge to issue a warrant authorizing the search. That, the Court held, was a mistake. The Fourth Amendment exception for searches incident to arrest was meant to ensure officer safety and protect evidence — not provide an excuse for police go on free‐range fishing expeditions through gigabytes worth of a person’s most private data. Even when it comes to “dumb” phones, the Court said, police must get a warrant to look through digital information on a mobile device, absent some special emergency.
The Court’s unanimous rejection of such warrantless searches closes off two nightmare scenarios that had haunted the dreams of civil libertarians.
First, there was the specter of the Supreme Court’s 5–4 ruling in a 2001 case called Atwater v. Lago Vista. There, the Court had held that the Fourth Amendment does not place any limits on the “seriousness” of an offense for which someone can be arrested. That means police have the discretion to arrest people for even trivial infractions such as failure to wear a seat belt — the “crime” for which Gail Atwater had been hauled to jail.
An unlimited “search incident to arrest” exception, combined with the Atwater ruling, threatened to give police a dangerous incentive: Why jump through all the hoops needed to convince a judge to issue a digital search warrant when you can pop a suspect for loitering or jaywalking and have a free pass to delve through their e‐mails and photos?
Second, and compounding the risk of such pretextual searches, there was the growing popularity of powerful forensic devices, like those manufactured by the company Cellbrite, capable of quickly copying a smartphone’s entire contents. That meant that even if a suspect were held only briefly, their files could be retained and scrutinized at leisure, with the owner potentially none the wiser.
For once, privacy advocates can sleep a bit easier. The Court’s “answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to arrest is… simple — get a warrant.”