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Police officer with cell phone

Can a Cop Search My Phone Without a Warrant?

The Supreme Court unanimously (9-0) ruled in Riley vs. California, 555 US 1992 (200), in favor of privacy. Now, police need a warrant to search cell phones.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court in Riley, was alert to the central role that cellphones play in contemporary life. They are, he said, “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

But he added that old principles required that their contents be protected from routine searches. One of the driving forces behind the American Revolution, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, was revulsion against “general warrants,” which “allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.”

Courts have long allowed warrantless searches in connection with arrests, saying they are justified by the need to protect police officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence. But Chief Justice Roberts said neither justification made much sense in the context of cellphones. While the police may examine a cellphone to see if it contains, say, a razor blade, he wrote, “once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, however, data on the phone can endanger no one.”

Now, without your approval, police officers will have to get a warrant to search your phone.