Odds are that if you have been arrested in Los Angeles, you'll have a cell phone or smartphone on you. As police pat you down and confiscate items in your possession, including your phone, can they start going through your phone, searching your texts, e-mails, phone logs, social media use, and photos?
Not without a warrant, they can't.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects all of us from “unreasonable search and seizure” by law enforcement. In June 2014, a unanimous United States Supreme Court held that in most cases, it is a violation of an accused's Fourth Amendment rights for police to search the contents of their phone without first obtaining a search warrant.
Police have long had the right to “pat down” individuals they've placed under arrest both for their own safety and to make sure that any evidence the person may have on them isn't destroyed. In Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014), the Supreme Court said that neither of those reasons justifies looking through the contents of a cell phone.
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats…, data on the phone can endanger no one.” He added that police could simply turn off a phone or remove its battery if they were concerned that data or information on the phone which might contain evidence would be erased or deleted.
The Court recognized how much information, much of which can be extremely personal, we now keep in our pockets on our phones. Roberts noted that our phones contain “a digital record of nearly every aspect of [our] lives – from the mundane to the intimate.” Such records are exactly the kind of things that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect, even if it is in electronic form and accessible instantly:
“the fact that technology now allows an individual to hold such information in the palm of his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought.”
If you've been arrested in Los Angeles, you need to make sure that your rights are protected, including your right against unreasonable search and seizure. Give one of our experienced Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys a call today. Read more in our article on California search and seizure laws. For information about warrantless searches of homes, refer to our article on whether the police can search a home without a warrant in California. And for information about warrantless computer searches, refer to our article on whether the police can search a computer without a warrant in California.