Police Need a Warrant to Search the Contents of Cell Phones in New Jersey State and Federal Criminal Cases

New Jersey Criminal Lawyers Schwartz Posnock

On June 26, 2014, the United States Supreme Court held, in Riley v. California, that the police must obtain a warrant before they can search the contents of a cell phone.

In analyzing the Fourth Amendment issues, particularly the reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of a cell phone, the Court discussed how cellphones differ from other items that you might carry in your pocket. The Court enumerated the many functions of cellphones – as “cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers” – and emphasized their “immense storage capacity.” Having all of this information stored in one place, the Court explained, collectively provides much more information about our lives than, say, a calendar or camera would, standing alone. In fact, the Court stated, because of the different kinds of data that can be stored on a cellphone, searching a cellphone could provide police with even more information about your life than they could get from searching your home.

The Court did hold that the police may examine a cell phone itself to make sure it cannot be used as a weapon. The court rejected the claim by the government that the digital contents of a cellphone can either endanger police or help the arrestee.

The Court then analyzed the extent to which searching the cellphone of someone who has been arrested will intrude on his privacy. The Court stated that “Privacy comes at a cost.” But it took pains to make the scope of its ruling clear. The Court did not hold that the police can never search a cellphone taken from someone who has been arrested. Instead, the Court limited its decision to this: the police generally must get a warrant to search the contents of a cell phone. If time is really of the essence, such as in the case of an abduction or a possible bomb threat, that could justify searching an arrestee’s cellphone without a warrant.

If you have a pending State, Federal, or Municipal Court criminal charge, call Schwartz & Posnock for a consultation at any of our convenient offices in Monmouth County (Eatontown), Middlesex County (East Brunswick), Union County (Linden), and Essex County (Livingston), to discuss how we can assist you in obtaining a positive result in your case.


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