Your Selfie is Safe, from Warrantless Searches

Fans of #Selfies rejoice, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cellphone seized from an individual who has been arrested. In its unanimous decision in Riley v. California, the Court stated:

“Cell Phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person. Notably, modern cell phones have an immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on privacy. But cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos. This has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. Third, data on the phone can date back for years … A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.”

The holding rests on the search incident to arrest doctrine first established in cases such as Chimel v. California, where the Supreme Court held that arresting police officers are entitled to search objects that are on the person of an arrestee or within his immediate reach at the time he is taken into custody without first securing a search warrant. The rationale for the rule is that officers may search at the time of arrest when the suspect’s privacy rights are diminished to ensure their own safety and/or guard against the destruction of evidence.

In following this logic, the Court in Riley determined that rarely may a cell phone be used to endanger the officer’s safety, and that the digital information on the phone may never be used to place officer safety in danger. Further, the Court reasoned that there are measures police may take to secure the phone’s contents to prevent destruction of whatever evidence may be present on the phone. As described above, the search of cell phones implicate serious privacy concerns, considering the amount of personal information that may be stored. Accordingly, the Court reasoned that those privacy concerns outweighed any legitimate government need for a warrantless search incident to arrest.

So, in honor of America’s recent birthday, celebrate knowing your Independence Day selfies will not be searched without police first obtaining a warrant. If you are in need of legal assistance regarding any criminal matters, the attorneys of Janssen Malloy LLP are here to help.