The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects all Americans against "unreasonable" searches at the hands of government agents. Normally, this means that before conducting a search, police officers must obtain a warrant from a neutral and detached magistrate that is supported by probable cause (a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed and that evidence of that crime is likely to be found in the place to be searched).
However, there are a few limited exceptions to the warrant requirement. One of these is the search incident to arrest: officers are not required to obtain a warrant prior to searching the person of a lawfully detained individual. A new California Supreme Court ruling has potentially vastly expanded the scope of searches incident to arrest by including information contained on personal electronic devices in the warrant exception.
People v. Diaz
When Gregory Diaz was arrested on a drug charge for allegedly selling Ecstasy, police seized a cellular telephone they found on his person. A few minutes after the cell phone was taken, one of the arresting officers discovered an incriminating text saved in one of the phone's message folders. When confronted with the text, Diaz admitted his role in the drug sale.
Diaz moved to suppress the text message and his statement as the fruit of an illegal search. In 2011, his case made it all the way to the California Supreme Court.
In a majority decision, the Court ruled that officers were within their rights to conduct a warrantless search of Diaz's phone as part of a search incident to arrest. Traditionally, warrantless searches incident to arrest have been found reasonable based on the need to locate weapons, instruments of escape, or evidence of a crime concealed on an arrestee's person. In analyzing precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court, California's highest court could find no meaningful distinction that would put information on cell phones outside the purview of a valid search incident to arrest.
For the time being, it seems that defendants' cell phone information will be easily available to arresting officers in California. But, not everyone believes this is the correct outcome.
Two justices dissented in People v. Diaz, arguing that unfettered, warrantless access to the vast bank of data potentially available through hand-held electronic devices goes far beyond the scope of a lawful search incident to arrest. Courts in other jurisdictions have also disagreed with the California Supreme Court's majority opinion.
The only way to come to establish a clear, uniform rule is for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the issue. Whether the nation's highest court will rule on the status of cell phone data in searches incident to arrest remains to be seen.