The U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion on two cases on June 25, 2014, which prohibits law enforcement from searching the contents of cell phones without warrants. Riley v. California, 573 U.S. _____ (2014); U.S. v. Wurie, 573 U.S. _____ (2014). In these cases, police officers did not have probable cause to search the individuals’ cell phones, but instead relied on the exception law enforcement has of a search incident a lawful arrest. This exception allows police officers to conduct a search of a person and area within his/her immediate control during an arrest for the safety and protection of law enforcement personnel and for the preservation of evidence.
However, when considering whether cell phones could be searched without a warrant utilizing the exception of a search incident to a lawful arrest, the Court focused on the prevalence of cell phones in modern society and the vast quantities of personal information stored on cell phones. The Court even indicated that cell phones “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 found that the vast amount of personal information stored on cell phones, and the inherent privacy of that personal information, outweighed any of the government’s concerns for police officer safety or protection of data. It reasoned that digital data on a cell phone could not itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting police officer or to effectuate the escape of the arrestee. Further, the Court indicated that any concern of data destruction, either through remote wiping or data encryption, could be alleviated through a police department’s own means of data recovery once a warrant was obtained. In the end, the Court indicated while “[p]rivacy comes at a cost”, cell phones are still capable of being searched, once warrants are appropriately acquired.
While these cases only apply to law enforcement officers, it will have an impact in school districts looking to involve their school resource officers in searches of students’ cell phones. School resource officers should not be searching students’ phones without warrants given this ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. However, these cases do not impact how school administrators conduct investigations and searches related to school discipline. School districts are still held to a reasonableness standard when conducting searches of students: the search must be justified at inception and reasonable in scope.
If a school administrator believes that a student has violated school policy(ies) through utilizing his/her cell phone while on school campus, the school administrator may search the student’s cell phone for evidence of the violations. However, school administrators must use caution when searching a student’s phone. For example, a student simply possessing a cell phone on school property in violation of Board policy will not permit an administrator to search the student’s cell phone. If a student has a cell phone out in his/her lap during a test, this may permit an administrator to search the student’s phone for evidence of cheating in appropriate and reasonable areas of the phone. If evidence of a criminal violation is believed to be found on a student’s cell phone during an administrator’s search, the evidence should be turned over to the school resource officer after the search has been conducted.