Many years ago, the United States Supreme Court approved what has come to be called “search incident to arrest” — a warrantless search of the person and immediate grabbing area of a person being arrested — in United States v. Chimel. The rationale for allowing a search under these circumstances was not only to protect the safety of the arresting officer but to also prevent the destruction of evidence by the arrestee. However, as is so often the case, the continuing march of technology has muddied the waters in relation to the well-established Chimel search. The Supreme Court is now considering whether police may search the contents of an arrestee’s phone under this theory.
On January 17, 2014, the Court granted certiorari to two such cases emerging on opposite sides of the country:
- In United States v. Wurie, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed a Boston conviction after excluding evidence police obtained during a warrantless search of a suspected drug dealer’s cellular phone.
- In Riley v. California, a California appeals court reached the opposite conclusion, finding that information recovered from a smartphone during an arrest could be used in the prosecution of a suspected gang member.
Fourth Amendment advocates and defense attorneys have argued that the ability of modern smartphones to store and access vast amounts of personal information distinguishes them from the simple notebooks and calendars contemplated in a Chimel search. Prosecutors, however, have argued that there is no reason to distinguish between the two and that the underlying concern of preventing the destruction of evidence is still very much applicable.
As evidence recovered from cell phones plays an ever-increasing role in criminal prosecutions, New York criminal defense attorneys await the court’s ruling with interest.