Cell Phone Searches

Cell phones are frequently searched by law enforcement to develop evidence against an individual under criminal investigation.   The police have learned over the years that people will frequently use their phones to do internet research, text, or email regarding matters for which they are under investigation.    For example, I have represented several individuals who allegedly texted other individuals about drug transactions.  These individuals had their cell phones seized by the police, who later discovered incriminating messages.

In 2014, the Supreme Court required the police to obtain a search warrant prior to searching an individual’s cell phone.  In its only unanimous decision of the 2014 term, Riley v. California, the Supreme Court recognized the unique nature of cell phones because of the quantity and quality of personal information available on them. The Supreme Court put the scope of a wholesale cell phone search in perspective by explaining that “it would typically expose the government to far more than the most exhaustive search of a house.”  The Supreme Court recognized an individual’s heightened privacy interest in the contents of his/her cell phone, due to the fact that “many of the more than 90% of American adults who own smart phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.”

Additionally, any search warrant issued must be limited in scope to only search those areas of a phone that are likely to produce incriminating evidence.  For example, if the police have some evidence that an individual under suspicion may have been using his phone to send text messages about a drug transaction, they are required to limit their searches to that part of the phone where text messages would be found.  It would be illegal to exceed the scope of a lawful search, for example, by also searching the phone for photographs or other evidence. 

It is critically important that an attorney defending an individual whose cell phone has been searched determine whether a warrant was obtained, and whether probable cause existed to search the phone.  If you are the subject of a criminal investigation or prosecution, and your cell phone has been seized by the police, make sure that you retain an attorney that is well versed in the law related to cell phone searches.


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