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High court to rule in cell phone search cases

Search and seizure issues are important to explore when putting together a criminal defense case. This is especially true for cases involving drug crimes. Police are bound by numerous rules when it comes to conducting searches, and when they violate these rules, it can weaken prosecution’s case when the defendant is successful in removing evidence obtained illegally by police.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases involving the specific question of when it is permissible for police to search the contents of a suspect’s cell phone during the course of an arrest.  The law permits officers to search the person of a criminal suspect for certain purposes. The question, though, is when it is reasonable for an officer to search the contents of a cell phone found on the suspect’s person in that context. 

Generally speaking, one of the reasons for allowing searches incident to an arrest is to ensure that the individual under arrest is not carrying any dangerous items that they could use to harm the officer or others nearby. In some cases, such searches have been permitted to gather evidence, though different court decisions have articulated different standards for this rationale. One allows the search to prevent the destruction of evidence, while the other allows the search in order to gather evidence of the crime of arrest.

In any event, it is these latter two rationales that would provide the basis for cell phone searches, if at all. The question is how broad a rule would be implemented. It isn’t clear how the high court will deal with these cases, but the decisions made will surely impact the way police officers deal with cell phones in making arrests, and perhaps even how we all use our cell phones. 

Source: Washington Post, “Searching a cell phone incident to arrest: Possible Fourth Amendment rules that the Supreme Court might consider in Riley and Wurie,” Orin Kerr, February 17, 2014. 

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