Unanimous Supreme Court decision in Riley could have broad implications

The FBI and other federal law enforcement organizations rely heavily on the use of cellphone records and other electronic information in investigating crimes. After charges are filed, electric evidence is often instrumental for federal prosecutors. If you are being charged with or investigated for a federal crime, the new Supreme Court decision in Riley v. California could have important implications for your defense.

No cellphone searches without a warrant

When a law enforcement officer makes a valid arrest, he or she may search the person of the arrestee as well as the immediate area around the arrestee as part of a search incident to arrest. The primary purposes of a search incident to arrest are preserving officer safety and preventing the destruction of evidence. Law enforcement officers do not need a warrant to conduct a search incident to arrest, and any evidence they find in such a search can be used against the arrestee in a criminal prosecution.

In the Riley case, officers searched two defendants incident to arrest and found that each of them was carrying a cellphone. Without obtaining a warrant, the officers went into the cellphones and found incriminating evidence.

Normally, officers may open unlocked "containers" they find in a search incident to arrest, such as a purse or a cigarette case. But searching the content on a mobile phone is a very different prospect from searching the interior of a wallet.

In a rare 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that officers cannot search the electronic contents of a suspect's cellphone incident to arrest without first obtaining a warrant.

Riley has broader implications

Today, for most of us, a cellphone is not really a cellphone. It is a computer, scheduler, storage space for electronic data, messaging platform, gateway to bank accounts, social media presence and rolodexes, even a GPS record of our physical movements. The effect of Riley is not limited solely to searches incident to arrest; it is a decisive philosophical step toward a general strengthening of electronic privacy rights in the 21st century as the law struggles to catch up to the advanced technological gadgetry that now inundates every aspect of our lives.

If you have been accused of a federal crime, particularly a complex white collar offense, chances are the case being built against you involves electronic evidence. Riley and cases like it clarify and solidify your right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and if government agents collected evidence against you in violation of your rights, your criminal defense lawyer can get that evidence thrown out.

Talk to a criminal defense lawyer today if you have been indicted by the federal government, or if you have become aware that you are being investigated by federal law enforcement officers. It is especially important to contact a lawyer experienced in federal criminal defense, as cases concerning charges under state law proceed through the courts differently and are not backed by the nearly limitless resources of the federal government. Get in touch with a defense lawyer today, safeguard your rights and unsure you are not unfairly treated by the courts.