Natty Shafer Law

Utah lawyer for criminal and immigration cases

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Cell Phones Are Private, Supreme Court Says

The United States Supreme Court issued a ruling today which requires law enforcement officers to obtain a search warrant for most searches of a cell phone. While the Court left open the possibility of officers conducting a cell phone search during “exigent circumstances,” the ruling in Riley v. California means officers cannot casually peruse cell phones.

The ruling was unanimous, which is a bit of a surprise for me, but this is a pretty big victory for champions of privacy rights. Often the Court refuses to protect the rights of those accused of crimes, but cell phones have becomes so ubiquitous that the Court could not ignore that cell phones are now among our most personal possessions. “Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse,” the Court said.

Many phones now contain more personal information than anyone has in any one location, including our homes. As the Court said, cell phones are not just phones. “The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone.”

This ruling does necessarily guarantee that police officers will never look through your phone, but it does make such evidence generally inadmissible during criminal court proceedings. Anyone who has been subjected to a cell phone search should contact a lawyer about various options.

You can read my previous posts on the subject of cell phone searches here and here.

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Warrant Exceptions: Exigent Circumstances

Another exception the search warrant requirement is “exigent circumstances.” Exigent circumstances are situations where immediate action is necessary because a delay would result in irrevocable harm. It would take too much time for an officer to get a search or arrest warrant. Such situations include: imminent danger to life, serious damage to property, possibility of a suspect escaping, or destruction of evidence. Of these four broad categories where exigent circumstances could be said to exist, it is the last one that is problematic. Most people, I believe, would not object on principle to officers going into homes where they hear gunshots being fired. The “destruction of evidence” category is so broad that far too many situations can become exigent circumstances.

When officers use the exigent circumstances exception to enter property, they are only supposed to take steps to end the emergency. The officer can retrieve and secure any evidence found in plain view, but cannot conduct a full search. Once the situation is stabilized, the officer is required to obtain a search warrant to continue searching for evidence. However, if the exigent circumstance is the destruction of evidence, the situation is not stabilized until the officer has secured the evidence. The officer is going to search the area around all the suspects and examine what they were hiding or how they were planning to destroy evidence.

Since illegal drugs are easily destroyed, exigent circumstances can occur in too many situations. In Kentucky v. King, the Supreme Court held that the exigent circumstances doctrine applies when the police do not “violate the Fourth Amendment or threaten to do so.” In other words, if the police have not conducted an illegal search before they knock on your door, anything that happens afterward could potentially fall within the exigent circumstances exception.

In King, the police broke down the door—without a warrant—of the defendant’s apartment. The police said they smelled burnt marijuana and knocked on the door, at which point they heard things being moved inside the apartment. If that is all it takes to create exigent circumstances then the police really have license to break into many people’s homes. All they have to do is testify that they smelled a narcotic and heard something moving inside. One can imagine a completely innocent person using a toilet for its intended purpose and hearing a knock on the door. If the officers suspect the occupant of committing any crime that would leave behind concealable evidence, flushing the toilet, presumably, would give police license to break down the door.

I’m not sure how to keep the police from breaking down your door once they have knocked on it. All I can tell you is that I would not make any quick movements.