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U.S. Supreme Court Considers Cell Phone Searches

It is difficult to imagine a more concentrated store of information than a modern cell phone. It seems doubtful that the framers of the Constitution — or even the justices of the Supreme Court several decades ago — could have imagined that a warehouse full of personal information could be stored on a device smaller than a matchbox. For this reason, the U.S. Supreme Court is now reconsidering how a decades-old rule of constitutional law and police procedure should apply to this new and ubiquitous form of technology.

In 1969, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Chimel v. California that permitted police officers to conduct a search of an arrestee’s person and immediate grabbing area so long as the arrest itself was valid. The rational for this rule was twofold:

  • To uncover any close at hand weapons that could endanger officer safety during or shortly after the arrest
  • To secure any evidence that the suspect could conceal or destroy if given the opportunity

The present-day Supreme Court is now asked whether Chimel allows officers to search the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone without a search warrant specifically allowing them to do so. The court has agreed to hear the case and arguments. A decision will likely be rendered later this year.

While it seems clear that the information contained in a cellular phone is evidence that could easily be destroyed if not secured by police, it is equally true that the amount of information stored in a cell phone goes far beyond the handwritten notebooks contemplated by the Chimel court. It remains to be seen how the Court could handle this case. Criminal defense attorneys in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation await the decision with interest.

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