The age of technology is upon us, and the examination of cell phones and other information technology devices have become an important element in police investigations. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled, in the case of Riley vs. California, that law enforcement cannot arbitrarily search cell phones and smart phones during arrests without having a warrant. In overruling the decision of the lower court, the highest court said that a search of a cell phone without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment, even when it takes place during a lawful arrest.
The background to the case is that after Californian David Riley was stopped for a traffic offence, weapons were found in his vehicle and police then searched his smart phone, discovering proof of links to gang related offences. The evidence was used to help convict Riley, who then appealed.
This case comes in the wake of a growing number of cases involving cellphone and other kinds of personal computers. It clarifies issues involved in the offence of texting while driving, dictating that the police can stop the individual for the offence, but they cannot look at his or her phone without the permission of the owner.
In this ruling the Supreme Court established that the individual has the right of privacy to their cell phone. Police say that in criminal cases, especially those which are drug related or related to violent crimes, they would normally want to examine the cell phone or smart phone in detail as it could contain incriminating text messages and other data which could lead to the arrest of other people associated with the case. Law enforcement officials worry that incriminating evidence could be lost during the time delay as they wait for a warrant to be issued.
Despite their trepidation, the ruling means that in the future the police will have to work even more closely with judges and prosecutors to ensure that they obtain the necessary warrants to enable them to have access to the phones and the information they contain.