Court Says Police Need A Warrant To Look At Your Phones, Even Just To Peek At Screens

The major decision made by the Supreme Court back in 2014 ruled that police need a warrant to look at somebody’s phone while making an arrest.

The widely discussed Riley Vs California was regarded as a giant win for privacy activists. The case now has surfaced new interpretations to the law and it is discussed in federal court in that even opening a phone to look at the screen qualifies as a “search” and requires a warrant.

The Riley Vs California case arose from a split among state and federal courts over the cell phone search incident to arrest (SITA) doctrine. The Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits had ruled that officers can search cell phones incident to arrest under various standards. That rule was followed by the Supreme Courts of Georgia, Massachusetts, and California. Other courts in the First Circuit and the Supreme Courts of Florida and Ohio disagreed.

The Illinois case saw an operation that led to the capture of Demontae Bell, an alleged drug dealer accused of illegal possession of an AK-47 assault rifle. A police officer testified in court that while interrogating Bell, he pulled out a confiscated flip phone and opened it, revealing a picture of the rifle, which Bell had set as his home screen’s wallpaper, Motherboard reported.

The picture was used as an evidence for a warrant to search Bell’s phone for metadata about when and where the photo was taken. The police officer, however, made claims that he only opened the phone in order to switch it off.

But, on Wednesday 20th April, the judge ruled that police have absolutely no right to open the phone of suspect and peek at the screen without first getting a warrant, even if it is to just to switch it off.

The ruling is in liaison with the aftermath of the Riley Vs California case, as it clearly established that even just looking at the screen is technically a “search” under the Fourth Amendment.

“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience, With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ Chief Justice John Roberts said in 2014.

The implications of this law would mean that police would not be allowed to turn on the screen of the phone and look for convicting notifications or messages without a search warrant, even if your device is not locked with a passcode.

However, the Supreme Court has added that there can be “exigent circumstances” for allowing warrantless searches, which includes stopping destruction of evidence (avoiding the phone from getting a remote wiping command) and forthcoming fears to officer safety (for instance, to check if there’s a razor blade buried in the phone’s case), Techworm reported.

“Yet neither the government’s response, nor the warrant affidavit, asserted that the officer in this case opened Bell’s cell phone out of concern for officer safety or preservation of evidence,” Judge Shahid wrote. Thus, “The search of Bell’s cell phone violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Regarding the sting operation, the judge refused Bell’s motion to suppress proof from the illegal search. Based on the testimonies made about Bell’s illegal rifle, “the photo would have ultimately been discovered”, the judge said,

The court has made a clear decisions after a series of mobile phone privacy related cases including U.S Vs Wurie and Riley Vs California. Both cases involved police searching the phones of suspects before making the arrest and finding the evidence later.

“Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to n arrest is accordingly simple–get a warrant!”

[Image via Shutterstock]