Most laypeople are vaguely aware that warrants allow police officers to search private belongings or property, and lack of a warrant can make a search illegal and render any evidence obtained inadmissible in court. However, there are so many exceptions to the warrant requirement that an officer can often find an exception. It sometimes seems as though the warrant requirement is no requirement at all. Today, I’m writing about one of those exceptions: the search incident to arrest.
When an officer arrests a person, the officer can search a person’s body to check for weapons or contraband. The rationale has been that officers need to protect themselves and they need to preserve evidence. The exception has a fairly long history. As Professor Orin Kerr showed, it goes back to at least 1914 and probably earlier. It is pretty well settled that officers can search everyone they arrest and the area within arm’s reach of the arrestee.
The problem comes with changes in technology and how intrusive such searches can be. We are in limbo as to whether or not police officers can search a person’s cell phone after an arrest. A police officer is allowed to remove the cell phone from someone they arrest, but are they allowed to open the cell phone and search for possibly incriminating evidence? A cell phone makes a poor weapon. Once an officer has removed it from a person’s possession, there is no threat of it harming the officer or of the arrestee deleting evidence. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue of search incident to arrest recently, and lower courts are left analogizing new technologies to dissimilar objects from past rulings. Different courts are split on the issue. Neither the Utah Supreme Court nor the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals have yet weighed in on the issue.
In United States v. Robinson, a 1973 case, the Court said that an officer could search a man’s pocket, which contained a crumpled up cigarette packet with heroin inside. As a result, some courts such as the California Supreme Court, have held that a cell phone on a person’s body is subject to search. A police officer, after a lawful arrest, can examine all of a phone’s contents without a search warrant.
It is not just the guilty who should be worried about this type of intrusion, either. Innocent people do get arrested, and there is a lot of personal information on a cell phone. I don’t know about you, but if an officer were so inclined, he could find a lot of embarrassing but not illegal information on my phone. I would not want a stranger poking around my text messages, call logs, appointment calendar, and pictures. Some people have even more sensitive information on their phone such as sensitive emails or trade secrets on their business phone.
Fortunately, there are other courts that have ruled differently, such as the Florida Supreme Court, and recognized that the rationale for this warrant exception does not apply to cell phones. Once an officer has taken a phone, the need to protect evidence or the officer’s safety is gone.
Until there is a ruling in Utah, it wouldn’t hurt to password protect your cell phone.