Unlimited Data?: Placing Limits on Searching Cell Phone Data Incident to a Lawful Arrest

April 1, 2014

The “search incident to arrest exception” is one of several exceptions to the general requirement that police must obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before conducting a search. Under the exception, an officer may lawfully search an arrestee’s person and the area within the arrestee’s immediate control without a warrant or probable cause, so long as the search is conducted contemporaneously with the lawful arrest. The U.S. Supreme Court has justified the exception based on the need for officers to discover and remove any weapons or destructible evidence that may be within the arrestee’s reach. Additionally, the Court has held that, under the exception, police may search any containers found on the arrestee’s person without examining the likelihood of uncovering weapons or evidence related to the arrestee’s offense. In light of these principles, should the exception permit officers to search the data of a cell phone found on an arrestee’s person?

In January 2014, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review two appellate rulings and resolve a split among the circuits and state courts on this question. This Note examines three approaches courts have taken to resolve the issue: a broad approach, a middle approach, and a narrow approach. This Note argues that the Supreme Court should adopt the narrow approach and prohibit warrantless searches of cell phone data under the exception.

April 2014

No. 5