In the state of Washington, can a police officer search your cell phone? Like everything else in the law, the answer is “It depends.” In some circumstances, the police may search your cell phone, but in others, they may not. What is the law, and what have the courts determined regarding cell phone searches? Keep reading, because if you’re ever suspected of a crime in this state, you may need to know.

If you’re arrested and charged with a crime on the basis of evidence discovered on your cell phone, or if you believe that the police illegally seized and searched your phone, you’re going to need legal representation from an attorney who understands – and who routinely deals with – the constitutional and legal issues that arise in these cases. You’ll need to consult an experienced Seattle criminal defense attorney.

WHAT DOES THE U.S. SUPREME COURT SAY ABOUT CELL PHONE SEARCHES?

In 2014, the United States Supreme Court – in Riley v. California – determined, by a unanimous vote of the justices, that a warrantless search and seizure of the digital contents of a cell phone during an arrest is unconstitutional. Prior to Riley, police officers presumed that they had a right to search someone’s cell phone – without a warrant – if the person was being placed under arrest.

That presumption was based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling in Chimel v. California. In that case, the justices determined that when police officers arrest someone, they may search the body of the suspect – without a warrant – as well as the “the area into which he might reach” in order to protect material evidence of a crime or the police officers’ personal safety.

However, in Riley, the Supreme Court decided that a warrant is required to search a cell phone, and that the original search of David Leon Riley’s cell phone by the San Diego Police Department at the time of Riley’s arrest in 2009 failed the “warrantless search test” established in Chimel. Here’s how Chief Justice John Roberts explained the Riley ruling:

“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.”

ARE THERE EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULING IN THE RILEY CASE?

At first glance, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Riley would appear to be comprehensive and conclusive. A cell phone is like any other set of files or records, and the police need a warrant to conduct a search. But if you know how the law works, you know that there are almost always exceptions, and the exceptions to the Riley ruling began to emerge almost immediately.

In our own state, Washington’s Supreme Court established an exception to Riley that allows police officers in this state to make warrantless searches of “abandoned” cell phones. When Adrian Sutlej Samalia abandoned a stolen car and fled on foot, he also abandoned his cell phone in the stolen vehicle, where it was discovered by Yakima Police Officer Ryan Yates.

Officer Yates simply found the cell phone in the abandoned vehicle and began calling some of the contacts listed in the phone. With this tactic, the Yakima Police Department quickly learned that Adrian Samalia was the owner of the phone as well as the driver who fled from the stolen vehicle.

WERE ADRIAN SAMALIA’S RIGHTS VIOLATED?

Samalia was charged with possession of a stolen vehicle. His attorney moved to suppress the cell phone evidence, arguing that Yakima police officers violated his constitutional rights when they seized and searched his cell phone with neither a warrant nor a valid exception to the warrant requirement.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, agreeing with the prosecutor that Samalia voluntarily abandoned any privacy interest in the cell phone by leaving it in the stolen vehicle, which he also voluntarily abandoned. The trial court then found Adrian Samalia guilty as charged, and he appealed to the state Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction.

“Therefore,” wrote the justices, “we hold that Samalia initially had a constitutionally protected privacy interest in his cell phone to the extent that the officers could not have searched his cell phone without a search warrant or the application of an exception to the warrant requirement. But … Samalia abandoned his privacy interest in his cell phone when he left it in a stolen vehicle while fleeing a lawful traffic stop.”

HAVE THE LEGAL ISSUES SURROUNDING CELL PHONES BEEN SETTLED?

Cell phones are complicated technology, and that technology is still evolving, so the laws that govern the search and seizure of these devices will very likely continue to evolve as well. And even without a search warrant, police officers may seize your phone if you are placed under arrest, and they may hold the phone until they can obtain a search warrant.

Officers must request that warrant from a federal or Washington state judge. A judge will approve a search warrant for a cell phone if that judge is convinced that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has occurred and that a search of the phone will uncover evidence about that crime. The warrant must describe precisely both the phone and the evidence being sought.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF THE POLICE WANT TO SEARCH YOUR PHONE?

If you are pulled over by the police while you’re driving in the state of Washington, or if police officers appear at your residence and ask to search your cell phone, politely – but resolutely – refuse. If the police truly believe that your phone contains evidence of a crime, they’ll obtain a warrant.

Don’t resist the police officers in any way, but politely make it clear that you do not consent to a search of your cell phone. In the greater Seattle area, if the police search your cell phone, and if you believe that search was conducted illegally, let an experienced Seattle criminal defense attorney handle the matter on your behalf.

Don’t take any risks or chances if you are being charged with a crime. Too much is at stake – like your freedom and your future. If you are arrested and charged with a crime, get the legal help you need, and get it as quickly as possible. That’s your right. An experienced Seattle criminal defense attorney will fight for justice on your behalf and put the law to work for you.