Monday, July 14, 2014

Cell Phone searches require a warrant when seized incident to arrest.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently issued a decision in the matter of Commonwealth v. Stem, affirming the United States Supreme Court's decision in Riley v. California, that a search incident to arrest does not cover the content of cell phones absent a warrant issued on probable cause.

In this case, the Defendant was apprehended and taken into custody for a domestic violence violation. While being processed for arrest his cell phone was taken and the Officer reviewed the photographs contained on the phone. The Officer did not have a warrant and was not able to articulate probable cause as to why the cell phone should be searched. The phone contained roughly 17 photos that appeared to be child pornography. Stem was later charged with child porn violations. Prior to trial he moved to suppress the photos as his phone was searched without a warrant, in contravention of the Supreme Court's decision in Riley. 

The trial court and then on appeal the Superior Court both held that the warrantless search of the cell phone was not a legal search and suppressed all evidence of the photos. 

Child pornography is a terrible crime, but requiring a warrant before police can search someone's cell phone protects everyone's privacy interests. As the Supreme Court explained in Riley, cell phones contain far more than just phone numbers or pictures. Cell phones linked to the internet can contain a person's entire banking history. Personal email or text messages. Confidential medical information, and much more. Being secure in the privacy of this material absent a warrant is in everyone's interests.  

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