Search Warrant needed to search seized Smartphones

Pennsylvania Superior Court held that a search warrant must be obtained to search Smartphones seized search incident to arrest.

“The specific issue that we address in this case is whether a police officer may search the data contained on a modern day cellular telephone, often referred to as a “smart phone” due to the computer-like capabilities of the devices, without a warrant pursuant to the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement prescribed in both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Very recently, the United States Supreme Court resolved this exact issue in a unanimous opinion in Riley, and in Riley’s companion case, Wurie v. United States. The Court considered both cases in a consolidated opinion.” Com. v. Stem, 2014 PA Super 145 (Pa. Super. 2014).

“The Supreme Court held that:

1 interest in protecting officers’ safety did not justify dispensing with warrant requirement for searches of cell phone data, and

2 interest in preventing destruction of evidence did not justify dispensing with warrant requirement for searches of cell phone data.” Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014). Com. v. Stem, 2014 PA Super 145 (Pa. Super. 2014).

“Police officer could not constitutionally conduct warrantless search of defendant’s cellular telephone incident to his arrest for criminal trespass, where defendant’s arrest was for reasons unrelated to his telephone.” Com. v. Stem, 2014 PA Super 145 (Pa. Super. 2014)

“The Court proceeded to consider how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which are now 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. The Court held that the doctrine cannot be extended to such devices, and held instead that officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search.” Com. v. Stem, 2014 PA Super 145 (Pa. Super. 2014)

“In so holding, the Court first considered the interplay between the two principal concerns underlying the search incident to arrest exception, police safety and preservation of evidence, and modern cellular devices, beginning with police safety. The Court first rejected the notion that such a device, by its very nature, poses a threat to a police officer, stating that: [d]igital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape. Law enforcement officers remain free to examine the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon—say, to determine whether there is a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case. Once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, however, data on the phone can endanger no one.” Com. v. Stem, 2014 PA Super 145 (Pa. Super. 2014)

“The Court then turned its attention to the second rationale, and the one that the United States and California primarily focused upon, the prevention of the destruction of evidence. The Court noted that both Riley and Wurie conceded that the police constitutionally were permitted to seize and secure their telephones in order to prevent the destruction of evidence during the time it takes to obtain a valid search warrant. Observing that this concession was “sensible,” the Court immediately concluded that ‘once law enforcement officers have secured a cell phone, there is no longer any risk that the arrestee himself will be able to delete incriminating data from the phone.’ ” Com. v. Stem, 2014 PA Super 145 (Pa. Super. 2014)

“Finally, the Court recognized that its decision will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” but nonetheless reminded us that ‘[p]rivacy comes at a cost.’ The Court concluded as follows:

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.’ The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.” Com. v. Stem, 2014 PA Super 145 (Pa. Super. 2014)

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