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Recent Supreme Court Decision Protects Privacy of Cell Phone Digital Information

On June 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Riley v. California, holding that law enforcement officials are prohibited from searching digital information on cell phones seized without a warrant during a lawful arrest.

Historically, courts have upheld most warrantless searches conducted incident to a lawful arrest, finding that such searches do not violate the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirements.  A search incident to arrest is one of several exceptions to the Fourth Amendment.  This exception permits officers to conduct a search incident to arrest of those areas within the arrestee’s immediate control.  Typically, the search must be necessary to protect police officers or to prevent the destruction of evidence.

In Riley, the Court reasoned that it is unlikely that searches of cell phone data incident to arrest can be justified by a need to protect police officers or prevent destruction of evidence.  Chief Justice Roberts, the opinion’s author, was careful to note that the Court’s decision does not limit the ability of police officers to physically examine a cell phone for threats, such as a razor blade.  However, “once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated potential physical threats…data on the phone can endanger no one.”  The Court further clarified that “the information on a cell phone is [not] immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.”  A law enforcement official may be entitled to search data on a cell phone under another exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

While the Court’s opinion in Riley specifically addresses searches conducted by law enforcement officials incident to arrest, the protections contemplated by the Court should be considered before searching student cell phones, laptops, iPads, and/or other electronic PDAs that have been confiscated by district personnel.  In some cases, a decision to search a student’s cell phone, laptop, iPad, and/or other electronic PDA, or a district policy unconditionally permitting such searches, could potentially violate the student’s Fourth Amendment rights and ultimately subject the district to liability.  Given that this is an emerging “hot issue,” it is recommended that a district seek the advice of legal counsel before searching the contents of any cell phone, laptop, iPad, and/or other electronic PDA that has been confiscated from a student.   

This alert is not intended to substitute for legal advice.  If you have questions regarding the Court’s decision in Riley v. California, please contact Kingsley Bogard LLP. 

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