June 9, 2023

How does today’s Supreme Court ruling effect you and your cellphone

Supreme Court Protects Cell Phones


Question: May police, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested?

In April 2014, the Supreme Court heard two fact patterns that raised this common question:

1st Case: Police searching Riley incident to the arrest seized a cell phone from Riley’s pants pocket. The Officer noticed the repeated use of a term associated with a street gang, a second officer specializing in gangs viewed the phone. Based in part on photographs and videos that the detective found, the State charged Riley in connection with a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier and sought an enhanced sentence based on Riley’s gang membership

2nd Case: Officers seized a cell phone from Wurie’s person and noticed that the phone was receiving multiple calls from a source identified as “my house” on its external screen. The officers opened the phone, accessed its call log, determined the number associated with the “my house” label, and traced that number to what they suspected was Wurie’s apartment. They secured a search warrant and found drugs, a firearm and ammunition, and cash in the ensuing search. Wurie was then charged with drug and firearm offenses.

Answer: And on June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States Held: The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.

Legal Advice: Be careful what you put in your phone because the Court’s holding is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is that a warrant is generally required before a search and police can use other information (just not digital content from your phone) to seek a warrant to view the contents of your phone which may prove a treasure trove of evidence for the Prosecution.

Supreme Court expands DNA collection

Anyone convicted of a felony crime in America must give a DNA sample to the State. In Washington individuals convicted of certain gross misdemeanors (e.g. Harassment, Stalking, etc..) must also give a DNA sample. On June 3, the U.S. Supreme Court in ruled that when officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold a suspect for a serious offense and bring him to the station to be detained in custody, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. As Justice Scalia pointed out in a scathing dissent, anyone convicted of a felony must already give DNA, so the ruling really only affects those arrested but not convicted (e.g. the innocent). DNA evidence involves expert witnesses which is why a Washington Rape case I had was impacted by Hurricane Katrina (Reliagene lab is in New Orleans). During a 2012 trial a significant point in my cross-examination of police officers was their failure to collect DNA in a case. The State will often tell jurors, “this isn’t CSI” but technology continues to advance and you should consider hiring a lawyer like W. Todd Pascoe who’s experienced handling DNA cases. A list of most serious offenses in Washington can be found at RCW 9.94A.030 and includes every Class A felony and violent class B felonies such as Assault in the Second Degree and Robbery in the Second Degree. For more information on the Supreme Court’s upholding of a Rape conviction where the defendant received life imprisonment without parole because the State collected his DNA see the following web articles (note: the last is the actual Supreme Court opinion)