Can Missouri police search your cellphone?

The answer from the U.S. Supreme Court is not without a warrant. In a highly anticipated case, the justices in a 9-0 decision put in place broad privacy protections for hand-held devices. The decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts found that searching a cellphone was much different than asking a suspect simply to empty his or her pockets.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Various cases over the years have sought to draw the line at what is unreasonable. Feeling of soft-sided luggage in a bus constitutes an unreasonable search. On the other hand, running from a police officer provides enough suspicion to justify a warrantless stop-and-frisk.

Search incident to arrest

One broad exception to the warrant requirement is the search incident to arrest, which initially related to officer safety. For instance, by patting down a suspect an officer could determine whether an individual had a concealed firearm. If the officer finds prescription drugs or heroin rather than a gun, the pills or controlled substance can usually support a drug crimes charge. In addition during a traffic stop, officers do not usually need to seek a warrant to search areas the individual could access (i.e. the glove box, if the individual was the passenger).

One of the underlying cases in the recent Supreme Court decision came from a California traffic stop for driving with expired tabs. The California Court of Appeals had found that police did not need a warrant to search the Smartphone the man carried. Evidence on the phone was used to link the man to another crime. Prosecutors charged and obtained a conviction against the man using the evidence from his phone.

Because the police did not obtain a search warrant before searching the data contained on his Smartphone, the high court's decision effectively reversed his conviction.

Amount of information and an analogy to a search of a home

The justices noted that 90 percent of American adults carry mobile phones with them. These devices store ever increasing amounts of data about an individual's life "from mundane to the intimate" such as medical records and location data.

The Chief Justice analogized the search of a Smartphone to the search of every corner of an individual's home. Implicit in the decision was the requirement to obtain a warrant to search remotely stored data in the "cloud" even if it could be accessed from the mobile device.

Police departments that routinely search cellphones at the time of an arrest will now need to seek warrants to lawfully access the data contained on these portable computers. Another issue that may come up in the future is the tracking of individuals through cell towers.

After any arrest for a Missouri crime, immediately contact a local criminal defense attorney. What you say even if you believe it will prove your innocence can be twisted and used against you. In addition, defenses may exist based on the way that officers obtained evidence.