by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law and ACS Co-Faculty Advisor, Thomas Jefferson School of Law; Chair, ACS San Diego Lawyer Chapter
Yesterday, the Supreme Court considered what the Fourth Amendment requires when the police want to search an arrestee’s cell phone. The outcome will depend on how the Court applies an old rule to new technology—a challenge that is likely to recur in the years to come as smartphones, cloud computing and tools like license plate readers change both the way we store information and the government’s ability to collect and analyze it.
Before the police can search your home or property, they need a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement. One well-established exception is the so-called “search incident to lawful arrest” doctrine. This rule says that the police can search an arrestee without a warrant, simply on the basis of the arrest. The rationale for this exception is that an arrestee might have a weapon on them or try to destroy evidence after they’re arrested. Plus, because an arrestee is being taken into custody, she has a reduced expectation of privacy.
Until recently, this exception was relatively uncontroversial. It meant that the police could look through an arrestee’s pockets, wallet or purse for weapons, drugs or other evidence—something they would be very likely to do anyway while booking the person back at the station.
But how should this rule apply now that we carry our “entire lives on cell phones,” as Justice Kagan put it during oral argument? Should the government be able to rummage through the cell phone of every single person they arrest for hours or days without a warrant? Or, should a different rule apply to phones?