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2.9: Chapter 10 - The Warrant Requirement- Exceptions (Part 2)

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    Warrant Exception: Searches Incident to a Lawful Arrest

    When police perform a lawful arrest, they are allowed to search the arrestee. The permissible scope of such searches—known as searches incident to lawful arrest (“SILA”)—has been the subject of multiple Supreme Court cases. No warrant is required for a SILA.1

    For a search to be justified as a SILA: (1) there must have been an arrest, (2) the arrest must have been “lawful,” and (3) the search must be “incident” to the arrest—that is, close in time and space to the arrest.

    Later in the semester, we will study when arrests are permitted. For now, note that because police often need no warrant to arrest a suspect, a SILA can sometimes result from two distinct warrant exceptions. The first allows the underlying arrest, and the second allows the ensuing search.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Ted Steven Chimel v. California

    Decided June 23, 1969 – 395 U.S. 752

    Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

    This case raises basic questions concerning the permissible scope under the Fourth Amendment of a search incident to a lawful arrest.

    The relevant facts are essentially undisputed. Late in the afternoon of September 13, 1965, three police officers arrived at the Santa Ana, California, home of the petitioner with a warrant authorizing his arrest for the burglary of a coin shop. The officers knocked on the door, identified themselves to the petitioner’s wife, and asked if they might come inside. She ushered them into the house, where they waited 10 or 15 minutes until the petitioner returned home from work. When the petitioner entered the house, one of the officers handed him the arrest warrant and asked for permission to “look around.” The petitioner objected, but was advised that “on the basis of the lawful arrest,” the officers would nonetheless conduct a search. No search warrant had been issued.

    Accompanied by the petitioner’s wife, the officers then looked through the entire three-bedroom house, including the attic, the garage, and a small workshop. In some rooms the search was relatively cursory. In the master bedroom and sewing room, however, the officers directed the petitioner’s wife to open drawers and “to physically move contents of the drawers from side to side so that [they] might view any items that would have come from [the] burglary.” After completing the search, they seized numerous items—primarily coins, but also several medals, tokens, and a few other objects. The entire search took between 45 minutes and an hour.

    At the petitioner’s subsequent state trial on two charges of burglary, the items taken from his house were admitted into evidence against him, over his objection that they had been unconstitutionally seized. He was convicted, and the judgments of conviction were affirmed by both the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. Both courts accepted the petitioner’s contention that the arrest warrant was invalid because the supporting affidavit was set out in conclusory terms, but held that since the arresting officers had procured the warrant “in good faith,” and since in any event they had had sufficient information to constitute probable cause for the petitioner’s arrest, that arrest had been lawful. From this conclusion the appellate courts went on to hold that the search of the petitioner’s home had been justified, despite the absence of a search warrant, on the ground that it had been incident to a valid arrest. We granted certiorari in order to consider the petitioner’s substantial constitutional claims.

    Without deciding the question, we proceed on the hypothesis that the California courts were correct in holding that the arrest of the petitioner was valid under the Constitution. This brings us directly to the question whether the warrantless search of the petitioner’s entire house can be constitutionally justified as incident to that arrest. The decisions of this Court bearing upon that question have been far from consistent, as even the most cursory review makes evident.

    “The presence of a search warrant serves a high function. Absent some grave emergency, the Fourth Amendment has interposed a magistrate between the citizen and the police. This was done not to shield criminals nor to make the home a safe haven for illegal activities. It was done so that an objective mind might weigh the need to invade that privacy in order to enforce the law. The right of privacy was deemed too precious to entrust to the discretion of those whose job is the detection of crime and the arrest of criminals. … And so the Constitution requires a magistrate to pass on the desires of the police before they violate the privacy of the home. We cannot be true to that constitutional requirement and excuse the absence of a search warrant without a showing by those who seek exemption from the constitutional mandate that the exigencies of the situation made that course imperative.”

    When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape. Otherwise, the officer’s safety might well be endangered, and the arrest itself frustrated. In addition, it is entirely reasonable for the arresting officer to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee’s person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction. And the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary items must, of course, be governed by a like rule. A gun on a table or in a drawer in front of one who is arrested can be as dangerous to the arresting officer as one concealed in the clothing of the person arrested. There is ample justification, therefore, for a search of the arrestee’s person and the area “within his immediate control”—construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.

    There is no comparable justification, however, for routinely searching any room other than that in which an arrest occurs—or, for that matter, for searching through all the desk drawers or other closed or concealed areas in that room itself. Such searches, in the absence of well-recognized exceptions, may be made only under the authority of a search warrant. The “adherence to judicial processes” mandated by the Fourth Amendment requires no less.

    It is argued in the present case that it is “reasonable” to search a man’s house when he is arrested in it. But that argument is founded on little more than a subjective view regarding the acceptability of certain sorts of police conduct, and not on consideration relevant to Fourth Amendment interests. Under such an unconfined analysis, Fourth Amendment protection in this area would approach the evaporation point. It is not easy to explain why, for instance, it is less subjectively “reasonable” to search a man’s house when he is arrested on his front lawn—or just down the street—than it is when he happens to be in the house at the time of arrest. As Mr. Justice Frankfurter put it:

    “To say that the search must be reasonable is to require some criterion of reason. It is no guide at all either for a jury or for district judges or the police to say that an ‘unreasonable search’ is forbidden—that the search must be reasonable. What is the test of reason which makes a search reasonable? The test is the reason underlying and expressed by the Fourth Amendment: the history and experience which it embodies and the safeguards afforded by it against the evils to which it was a response.”

    Thus, although “[t]he recurring questions of the reasonableness of searches” depend upon “the facts and circumstances—the total atmosphere of the case,” those facts and circumstances must be viewed in the light of established Fourth Amendment principles.

    No consideration relevant to the Fourth Amendment suggests any point of rational limitation, once the search is allowed to go beyond the area from which the person arrested might obtain weapons or evidentiary items. The only reasoned distinction is one between a search of the person arrested and the area within his reach on the one hand, and more extensive searches on the other.

    [T]he general point so forcefully made by Judge Learned Hand remains:

    “After arresting a man in his house, to rummage at will among his papers in search of whatever will convict him, appears to us to be indistinguishable from what might be done under a general warrant; indeed, the warrant would give more protection, for presumably it must be issued by a magistrate. True, by hypothesis the power would not exist, if the supposed offender were not found on the premises; but it is small consolation to know that one’s papers are safe only so long as one is not at home.”

    Application of sound Fourth Amendment principles to the facts of this case produces a clear result. The search here went far beyond the petitioner’s person and the area from within which he might have obtained either a weapon or something that could have been used as evidence against him. There was no constitutional justification, in the absence of a search warrant, for extending the search beyond that area. The scope of the search was, therefore, “unreasonable” under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and the petitioner’s conviction cannot stand.


    Mr. Justice WHITE, with whom Mr. Justice BLACK joins, dissenting.

    Few areas of the law have been as subject to shifting constitutional standards over the last 50 years as that of the search “incident to an arrest.” There has been a remarkable instability in this whole area, which has seen at least four major shifts in emphasis. Today’s opinion makes an untimely fifth. In my view, the Court should not now abandon the old rule.

    The rule which has prevailed, but for very brief or doubtful periods of aberration, is that a search incident to an arrest may extend to those areas under the control of the defendant and where items subject to constitutional seizure may be found. The justification for this rule must, under the language of the Fourth Amendment, lie in the reasonableness of the rule.

    In terms, then, the Court must decide whether a given search is reasonable. The Amendment does not proscribe “warrantless searches” but instead it proscribes “unreasonable searches” and this Court has never held nor does the majority today assert that warrantless searches are necessarily unreasonable.

    Applying this reasonableness test to the area of searches incident to arrests, one thing is clear at the outset. Search of an arrested man and of the items within his immediate reach must in almost every case be reasonable. There is always a danger that the suspect will try to escape, seizing concealed weapons with which to overpower and injure the arresting officers, and there is a danger that he may destroy evidence vital to the prosecution. Circumstances in which these justifications would not apply are sufficiently rare that inquiry is not made into searches of this scope, which have been considered reasonable throughout.

    The justifications which make such a search reasonable obviously do not apply to the search of areas to which the accused does not have ready physical access. This is not enough, however, to prove such searches unconstitutional. The Court has always held, and does not today deny, that when there is probable cause to search and it is “impracticable” for one reason or another to get a search warrant, then a warrantless search may be reasonable. This is the case whether an arrest was made at the time of the search or not.

    This is not to say that a search can be reasonable without regard to the probable cause to believe that seizable items are on the premises. But when there are exigent circumstances, and probable cause, then the search may be made without a warrant, reasonably. An arrest itself may often create an emergency situation making it impracticable to obtain a warrant before embarking on a related search. Again assuming that there is probable cause to search premises at the spot where a suspect is arrested, it seems to me unreasonable to require the police to leave the scene in order to obtain a search warrant when they are already legally there to make a valid arrest, and when there must almost always be a strong possibility that confederates of the arrested man will in the meanwhile remove the items for which the police have probable cause to search. This must so often be the case that it seems to me as unreasonable to require a warrant for a search of the premises as to require a warrant for search of the person and his very immediate surroundings.

    This case provides a good illustration of my point that it is unreasonable to require police to leave the scene of an arrest in order to obtain a search warrant when they already have probable cause to search and there is a clear danger that the items for which they may reasonably search will be removed before they return with a warrant. Petitioner was arrested in his home after an arrest. There was doubtless probable cause not only to arrest petitioner, but also to search his house. He had obliquely admitted, both to a neighbor and to the owner of the burglarized store, that he had committed the burglary. In light of this, and the fact that the neighbor had seen other admittedly stolen property in petitioner’s house, there was surely probable cause on which a warrant could have issued to search the house for the stolen coins. Moreover, had the police simply arrested petitioner, taken him off to the station house, and later returned with a warrant, it seems very likely that petitioner’s wife, who in view of petitioner’s generally garrulous nature must have known of the robbery, would have removed the coins. For the police to search the house while the evidence they had probable cause to search out and seize was still there cannot be considered unreasonable.

    In considering searches incident to arrest, it must be remembered that there will be immediate opportunity to challenge the probable cause for the search in an adversary proceeding. The suspect has been apprised of the search by his very presence at the scene, and having been arrested, he will soon be brought into contact with people who can explain his rights.

    An arrested man, by definition conscious of the police interest in him, and provided almost immediately with a lawyer and a judge, is in an excellent position to dispute the reasonableness of his arrest and contemporaneous search in a full adversary proceeding. I would uphold the constitutionality of this search contemporaneous with an arrest since there were probable cause both for the search and for the arrest, exigent circumstances involving the removal or destruction of evidence, and satisfactory opportunity to dispute the issues of probable cause shortly thereafter. In this case, the search was reasonable.

    * * *

    In the next case, the Court made clear that a search cannot be “incident to a lawful arrest” if no one is arrested.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Patrick Knowles v. Iowa

    Decided Dec. 8, 1998 – 525 U.S. 113

    Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

    An Iowa police officer stopped petitioner Knowles for speeding, but issued him a citation rather than arresting him. The question presented is whether such a procedure authorizes the officer, consistently with the Fourth Amendment, to conduct a full search of the car. We answer this question “no.”

    Knowles was stopped in Newton, Iowa, after having been clocked driving 43 miles per hour on a road where the speed limit was 25 miles per hour. The police officer issued a citation to Knowles, although under Iowa law he might have arrested him. The officer then conducted a full search of the car, and under the driver’s seat he found a bag of marijuana and a “pot pipe.” Knowles was then arrested and charged with violation of state laws dealing with controlled substances.

    Before trial, Knowles moved to suppress the evidence so obtained. He argued that the search could not be sustained under the “search incident to arrest” exception because he had not been placed under arrest. At the hearing on the motion to suppress, the police officer conceded that he had neither Knowles’ consent nor probable cause to conduct the search. He relied on Iowa law dealing with such searches.

    [Under Iowa law at the time, when an officer was authorized to arrest someone for a traffic offense but instead issued a citation, “the issuance of a citation in lieu of an arrest” did “not affect the officer’s authority to conduct an otherwise lawful search.”]

    [T]he trial court denied the motion to suppress and found Knowles guilty. The Supreme Court of Iowa, sitting en banc, affirmed by a divided vote. [T]he Iowa Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the search under a bright-line “search incident to citation” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, reasoning that so long as the arresting officer had probable cause to make a custodial arrest, there need not in fact have been a custodial arrest. We granted certiorari and we now reverse.

    [W]e [have] noted the two historical rationales for the “search incident to arrest” exception: (1) the need to disarm the suspect in order to take him into custody, and (2) the need to preserve evidence for later use at trial. But neither of these underlying rationales for the search incident to arrest exception is sufficient to justify the search in the present case.

    We have recognized that the first rationale—officer safety—is “‘both legitimate and weighty,’” The threat to officer safety from issuing a traffic citation, however, is a good deal less than in the case of a custodial arrest. [A] custodial arrest involves “danger to an officer” because of “the extended exposure which follows the taking of a suspect into custody and transporting him to the police station.” We recognized that “[t]he danger to the police officer flows from the fact of the arrest, and its attendant proximity, stress, and uncertainty, and not from the grounds for arrest.” A routine traffic stop, on the other hand, is a relatively brief encounter and “is more analogous to a so-called ‘Terry stop’ … than to a formal arrest.”

    This is not to say that the concern for officer safety is absent in the case of a routine traffic stop. It plainly is not. But while the concern for officer safety in this context may justify the “minimal” additional intrusion of ordering a driver and passengers out of the car, it does not by itself justify the often considerably greater intrusion attending a full field-type search. Even without the search authority Iowa urges, officers have other, independent bases to search for weapons and protect themselves from danger. For example, they may order out of a vehicle both the driver and any passengers, perform a “patdown” of a driver and any passengers upon reasonable suspicion that they may be armed and dangerous, conduct a “Terry patdown” of the passenger compartment of a vehicle upon reasonable suspicion that an occupant is dangerous and may gain immediate control of a weapon, and even conduct a full search of the passenger compartment, including any containers therein, pursuant to a custodial arrest.

    Nor has Iowa shown the second justification for the authority to search incident to arrest—the need to discover and preserve evidence. Once Knowles was stopped for speeding and issued a citation, all the evidence necessary to prosecute that offense had been obtained. No further evidence of excessive speed was going to be found either on the person of the offender or in the passenger compartment of the car.

    Iowa nevertheless argues that a “search incident to citation” is justified because a suspect who is subject to a routine traffic stop may attempt to hide or destroy evidence related to his identity (e.g., a driver’s license or vehicle registration), or destroy evidence of another, as yet undetected crime. As for the destruction of evidence relating to identity, if a police officer is not satisfied with the identification furnished by the driver, this may be a basis for arresting him rather than merely issuing a citation. As for destroying evidence of other crimes, the possibility that an officer would stumble onto evidence wholly unrelated to the speeding offense seems remote.

    [T]he authority to conduct a full field search as incident to an arrest [is] a “bright-line rule,” which [is] based on the concern for officer safety and destruction or loss of evidence, but which [does] not depend in every case upon the existence of either concern. Here we are asked to extend that “bright-line rule” to a situation where the concern for officer safety is not present to the same extent and the concern for destruction or loss of evidence is not present at all. We decline to do so. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Iowa is reversed, and the cause is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    After the Court decided Chimel v. California, the proper physical scope of a SILA was defined with reasonable clarity in most contexts. In cases in which suspects were arrested in or near cars, however, there was substantial confusion about the proper scope of ensuing searches. In particular, the Court has repeatedly considered whether police may search a car from which a suspect was removed (or from which the suspect otherwise exited) shortly prior to arrest. In Arizona v. Gant, the Court considered the continuing vitality of a doctrine set forth in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981). (Because the Gant Court describes Belton at length, students need not read Belton to understand the controversy it created.) Students should note that Justice Stevens, who wrote for the Court, could not have assembled a majority without the vote of Justice Scalia, who wrote separately to explain his discontent with how the majority responded to criticism of Belton.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Arizona v. Rodney Joseph Gant

    Decided April 21, 2009 – 556 U.S. 332

    Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

    After Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed, and locked in the back of a patrol car, police officers searched his car and discovered cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat. Because Gant could not have accessed his car to retrieve weapons or evidence at the time of the search, the Arizona Supreme Court held that the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, as defined in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), and applied to vehicle searches in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), did not justify the search in this case. We agree with that conclusion.

    Under Chimel, police may search incident to arrest only the space within an arrestee’s “‘immediate control,’” meaning “the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” The safety and evidentiary justifications underlying Chimel’s reaching-distance rule determine Belton’s scope. Accordingly, we hold that Belton does not authorize a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle. [W]e also conclude that circumstances unique to the automobile context justify a search incident to arrest when it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.


    On August 25, 1999, acting on an anonymous tip that the residence at 2524 North Walnut Avenue was being used to sell drugs, Tucson police officers Griffith and Reed knocked on the front door and asked to speak to the owner. Gant answered the door and, after identifying himself, stated that he expected the owner to return later. The officers left the residence and conducted a records check, which revealed that Gant’s driver’s license had been suspended and there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest for driving with a suspended license.

    When the officers returned to the house that evening, they found a man near the back of the house and a woman in a car parked in front of it. After a third officer arrived, they arrested the man for providing a false name and the woman for possessing drug paraphernalia. Both arrestees were handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars when Gant arrived. The officers recognized his car as it entered the driveway, and Officer Griffith confirmed that Gant was the driver by shining a flashlight into the car as it drove by him. Gant parked at the end of the driveway, got out of his car, and shut the door. Griffith, who was about 30 feet away, called to Gant, and they approached each other, meeting 10–to–12 feet from Gant’s car. Griffith immediately arrested Gant and handcuffed him.

    Because the other arrestees were secured in the only patrol cars at the scene, Griffith called for backup. When two more officers arrived, they locked Gant in the backseat of their vehicle. After Gant had been handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car, two officers searched his car: One of them found a gun, and the other discovered a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat.

    Gant was charged with two offenses—possession of a narcotic drug for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia (i.e., the plastic bag in which the cocaine was found). He moved to suppress the evidence seized from his car on the ground that the warrantless search violated the Fourth Amendment. Among other things, Gant argued that Belton did not authorize the search of his vehicle because he posed no threat to the officers after he was handcuffed in the patrol car and because he was arrested for a traffic offense for which no evidence could be found in his vehicle. When asked at the suppression hearing why the search was conducted, Officer Griffith responded: “Because the law says we can do it.”

    The trial court rejected the State’s contention that the officers had probable cause to search Gant’s car for contraband when the search began but it denied the motion to suppress. Relying on the fact that the police saw Gant commit the crime of driving without a license and apprehended him only shortly after he exited his car, the court held that the search was permissible as a search incident to arrest. A jury found Gant guilty on both drug counts, and he was sentenced to a 3–year term of imprisonment.

    After protracted state-court proceedings, the Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the search of Gant’s car was unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The court’s opinion discussed at length our decision in Belton, which held that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle and any containers therein as a contemporaneous incident of an arrest of the vehicle’s recent occupant. The court distinguished Belton as a case concerning the permissible scope of a vehicle search incident to arrest and concluded that it did not answer “the threshold question whether the police may conduct a search incident to arrest at all once the scene is secure.” Relying on our earlier decision in Chimel, the court observed that the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement is justified by interests in officer safety and evidence preservation. When “the justifications underlying Chimel no longer exist because the scene is secure and the arrestee is handcuffed, secured in the back of a patrol car, and under the supervision of an officer,” the court concluded, a “warrantless search of the arrestee’s car cannot be justified as necessary to protect the officers at the scene or prevent the destruction of evidence.” Accordingly, the court held that the search of Gant’s car was unreasonable.

    The chorus that has called for us to revisit Belton includes courts, scholars, and Members of this Court who have questioned that decision’s clarity and its fidelity to Fourth Amendment principles. We therefore granted the State’s petition for certiorari.


    Consistent with our precedent, our analysis begins, as it should in every case addressing the reasonableness of a warrantless search, with the basic rule that “searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Among the exceptions to the warrant requirement is a search incident to a lawful arrest. The exception derives from interests in officer safety and evidence preservation that are typically implicated in arrest situations.

    In Chimel, we held that a search incident to arrest may only include “the arrestee’s person and the area ‘within his immediate control’—construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” That limitation, which continues to define the boundaries of the exception, ensures that the scope of a search incident to arrest is commensurate with its purposes of protecting arresting officers and safeguarding any evidence of the offense of arrest that an arrestee might conceal or destroy. If there is no possibility that an arrestee could reach into the area that law enforcement officers seek to search, both justifications for the search-incident-to-arrest exception are absent and the rule does not apply.

    In Belton, we considered Chimel’s application to the automobile context. A lone police officer in that case stopped a speeding car in which Belton was one of four occupants. While asking for the driver’s license and registration, the officer smelled burnt marijuana and observed an envelope on the car floor marked “Supergold”—a name he associated with marijuana. Thus having probable cause to believe the occupants had committed a drug offense, the officer ordered them out of the vehicle, placed them under arrest, and patted them down. Without handcuffing the arrestees, the officer “‘split them up into four separate areas of the Thruway … so they would not be in physical touching area of each other’” and searched the vehicle, including the pocket of a jacket on the backseat, in which he found cocaine.

    The New York Court of Appeals found the search unconstitutional, concluding that after the occupants were arrested the vehicle and its contents were “safely within the exclusive custody and control of the police.” The State asked this Court to consider whether the exception recognized in Chimel permits an officer to search “a jacket found inside an automobile while the automobile’s four occupants, all under arrest, are standing unsecured around the vehicle.” We granted certiorari because “courts ha[d] found no workable definition of ‘the area within the immediate control of the arrestee’ when that area arguably includes the interior of an automobile.”

    [W]e held that when an officer lawfully arrests “the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of the automobile” and any containers therein. That holding was based in large part on our assumption “that articles inside the relatively narrow compass of the passenger compartment of an automobile are in fact generally, even if not inevitably, within ‘the area into which an arrestee might reach.’”

    The Arizona Supreme Court read our decision in Belton as merely delineating “the proper scope of a search of the interior of an automobile” incident to an arrest. That is, when the passenger compartment is within an arrestee’s reaching distance, Belton supplies the generalization that the entire compartment and any containers therein may be reached. On that view of Belton, the state court concluded that the search of Gant’s car was unreasonable because Gant clearly could not have accessed his car at the time of the search. It also found that no other exception to the warrant requirement applied in this case.

    Gant now urges us to adopt the reading of Belton followed by the Arizona Supreme Court.


    Despite the textual and evidentiary support for the Arizona Supreme Court’s reading of Belton, our opinion has been widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search. This reading may be attributable to Justice Brennan’s dissent in Belton, in which he characterized the Court’s holding as resting on the “fiction … that the interior of a car is always within the immediate control of an arrestee who has recently been in the car.” Under the majority’s approach, he argued, “the result would presumably be the same even if [the officer] had handcuffed Belton and his companions in the patrol car” before conducting the search.

    Since we decided Belton, Courts of Appeals have given different answers to the question whether a vehicle must be within an arrestee’s reach to justify a vehicle search incident to arrest, but Justice Brennan’s reading of the Court’s opinion has predominated. As Justice O’Connor observed, “lower court decisions seem now to treat the ability to search a vehicle incident to the arrest of a recent occupant as a police entitlement rather than as an exception justified by the twin rationales of Chimel.” Justice SCALIA has similarly noted that, although it is improbable that an arrestee could gain access to weapons stored in his vehicle after he has been handcuffed and secured in the backseat of a patrol car, cases allowing a search in “this precise factual scenario … are legion.” Indeed, some courts have upheld searches under Belton “even when … the handcuffed arrestee has already left the scene.”

    Under this broad reading of Belton, a vehicle search would be authorized incident to every arrest of a recent occupant notwithstanding that in most cases the vehicle’s passenger compartment will not be within the arrestee’s reach at the time of the search. To read Belton as authorizing a vehicle search incident to every recent occupant’s arrest would thus untether the rule from the justifications underlying the Chimel exception—a result clearly incompatible with our statement in Belton that it “in no way alters the fundamental principles established in the Chimel case regarding the basic scope of searches incident to lawful custodial arrests.” Accordingly, we reject this reading of Belton and hold that the Chimel rationale authorizes police to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.

    Although it does not follow from Chimel, we also conclude that circumstances unique to the vehicle context justify a search incident to a lawful arrest when it is “reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” In many cases, as when a recent occupant is arrested for a traffic violation, there will be no reasonable basis to believe the vehicle contains relevant evidence. But in others … the offense of arrest will supply a basis for searching the passenger compartment of an arrestee’s vehicle and any containers therein.

    Neither the possibility of access nor the likelihood of discovering offense-related evidence authorized the search in this case. Unlike in Belton, which involved a single officer confronted with four unsecured arrestees, the five officers in this case outnumbered the three arrestees, all of whom had been handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars before the officers searched Gant’s car. Under those circumstances, Gant clearly was not within reaching distance of his car at the time of the search. An evidentiary basis for the search was also lacking in this case. Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license—an offense for which police could not expect to find evidence in the passenger compartment of Gant’s car. Because police could not reasonably have believed either that Gant could have accessed his car at the time of the search or that evidence of the offense for which he was arrested might have been found therein, the search in this case was unreasonable.


    The State does not seriously disagree with the Arizona Supreme Court’s conclusion that Gant could not have accessed his vehicle at the time of the search, but it nevertheless asks us to uphold the search of his vehicle under the broad reading of Belton discussed above. The State argues that Belton searches are reasonable regardless of the possibility of access in a given case because that expansive rule correctly balances law enforcement interests, including the interest in a bright-line rule, with an arrestee’s limited privacy interest in his vehicle.

    For several reasons, we reject the State’s argument. First, the State seriously undervalues the privacy interests at stake. Although we have recognized that a motorist’s privacy interest in his vehicle is less substantial than in his home, the former interest is nevertheless important and deserving of constitutional protection. It is particularly significant that Belton searches authorize police officers to search not just the passenger compartment but every purse, briefcase, or other container within that space. A rule that gives police the power to conduct such a search whenever an individual is caught committing a traffic offense, when there is no basis for believing evidence of the offense might be found in the vehicle, creates a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals. Indeed, the character of that threat implicates the central concern underlying the Fourth Amendment—the concern about giving police officers unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person’s private effects.

    At the same time as it undervalues these privacy concerns, the State exaggerates the clarity that its reading of Belton provides. Courts that have read Belton expansively are at odds regarding how close in time to the arrest and how proximate to the arrestee’s vehicle an officer’s first contact with the arrestee must be to bring the encounter within Belton’s purview and whether a search is reasonable when it commences or continues after the arrestee has been removed from the scene. The rule has thus generated a great deal of uncertainty, particularly for a rule touted as providing a “bright line.”

    Contrary to the State’s suggestion, a broad reading of Belton is also unnecessary to protect law enforcement safety and evidentiary interests. Under our view, Belton and Thornton [v. United States, 541 U.S.615 (2004)] permit an officer to conduct a vehicle search when an arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. Other established exceptions to the warrant requirement authorize a vehicle search under additional circumstances when safety or evidentiary concerns demand.

    These exceptions together ensure that officers may search a vehicle when genuine safety or evidentiary concerns encountered during the arrest of a vehicle’s recent occupant justify a search. Construing Belton broadly to allow vehicle searches incident to any arrest would serve no purpose except to provide a police entitlement, and it is anathema to the Fourth Amendment to permit a warrantless search on that basis. For these reasons, we are unpersuaded by the State’s arguments that a broad reading of Belton would meaningfully further law enforcement interests and justify a substantial intrusion on individuals’ privacy.


    Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee’s vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant requirement applies. The Arizona Supreme Court correctly held that this case involved an unreasonable search. Accordingly, the judgment of the State Supreme Court is affirmed.

    Justice SCALIA, concurring.

    To determine what is an “unreasonable” search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, we look first to the historical practices the Framers sought to preserve; if those provide inadequate guidance, we apply traditional standards of reasonableness. Since the historical scope of officers’ authority to search vehicles incident to arrest is uncertain, traditional standards of reasonableness govern. It is abundantly clear that those standards do not justify what I take to be the rule set forth in Belton and Thornton: that arresting officers may always search an arrestee’s vehicle in order to protect themselves from hidden weapons. When an arrest is made in connection with a roadside stop, police virtually always have a less intrusive and more effective means of ensuring their safety—and a means that is virtually always employed: ordering the arrestee away from the vehicle, patting him down in the open, handcuffing him, and placing him in the squad car.

    Law enforcement officers face a risk of being shot whenever they pull a car over. But that risk is at its height at the time of the initial confrontation; and it is not at all reduced by allowing a search of the stopped vehicle after the driver has been arrested and placed in the squad car. I observed in Thornton that the Government had failed to provide a single instance in which a formerly restrained arrestee escaped to retrieve a weapon from his own vehicle; Arizona and its amici have not remedied that significant deficiency in the present case.

    It must be borne in mind that we are speaking here only of a rule automatically permitting a search when the driver or an occupant is arrested. Where no arrest is made, we have held that officers may search the car if they reasonably believe “the suspect is dangerous and … may gain immediate control of weapons.” In the no-arrest case, the possibility of access to weapons in the vehicle always exists, since the driver or passenger will be allowed to return to the vehicle when the interrogation is completed.

    Justice STEVENS acknowledges that an officer-safety rationale cannot justify all vehicle searches incident to arrest, but asserts that that is not the rule Belton and Thornton adopted. Justice STEVENS would therefore retain the application of Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), in the car-search context but would apply in the future what he believes our cases held in the past: that officers making a roadside stop may search the vehicle so long as the “arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.” I believe that this standard fails to provide the needed guidance to arresting officers and also leaves much room for manipulation, inviting officers to leave the scene unsecured (at least where dangerous suspects are not involved) in order to conduct a vehicle search. In my view we should simply abandon the Belton–Thornton charade of officer safety and overrule those cases. I would hold that a vehicle search incident to arrest is ipso facto “reasonable” only when the object of the search is evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred. Because respondent was arrested for driving without a license (a crime for which no evidence could be expected to be found in the vehicle), I would hold in the present case that the search was unlawful.

    Justice ALITO [in dissent] insists that the Court must demand a good reason for abandoning prior precedent. That is true enough, but it seems to me ample reason that the precedent was badly reasoned and produces erroneous (in this case unconstitutional) results. We should recognize Belton’s fanciful reliance upon officer safety for what it was: “a return to the broader sort of [evidence-gathering] search incident to arrest that we allowed before Chimel.”

    Justice ALITO argues that there is no reason to adopt a rule limiting automobile-arrest searches to those cases where the search’s object is evidence of the crime of arrest. I disagree. This formulation of officers’ authority both preserves the outcomes of our prior cases and tethers the scope and rationale of the doctrine to the triggering event. Belton, by contrast, allowed searches precisely when its exigency-based rationale was least applicable: The fact of the arrest in the automobile context makes searches on exigency grounds less reasonable, not more. I also disagree with Justice ALITO’s conclusory assertion that this standard will be difficult to administer in practice; the ease of its application in this case would suggest otherwise.

    No other Justice, however, shares my view that application of Chimel in this context should be entirely abandoned. It seems to me unacceptable for the Court to come forth with a 4–to–1–to–4 opinion that leaves the governing rule uncertain. I am therefore confronted with the choice of either leaving the current understanding of Belton and Thornton in effect, or acceding to what seems to me the artificial narrowing of those cases adopted by Justice STEVENS. The latter, as I have said, does not provide the degree of certainty I think desirable in this field; but the former opens the field to what I think are plainly unconstitutional searches—which is the greater evil. I therefore join the opinion of the Court.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    Consider what is included in the “passenger compartment.” Does it include the trunk? What if the car is a hatchback or station wagon? Are the wheel wells or undercarriage part of the passenger compartment? What other warrant exceptions might apply to trunk searches?

    Although some have argued that Gant implicitly overruled Belton, one could argue that the majority instead properly confined Belton to facts similar to those that justified the Belton decision itself. In Belton, a police officer stopped a car for speeding on the New York State Thruway. The Thruway is a system of highways covering hundreds of miles and is among the busiest toll roads in the United States.

    The car contained four men (including Belton), and the officer was alone. The officer directed the four men to stand apart from one another so that they could not touch each other. By contrast, in Gant, multiple officers saw Gant park his car in a driveway. Perhaps the facts of Belton—a single officer dealing with multiple suspects on a busy highway—justified a search incident to lawful arrest in a way that the facts of Gant did not. In other words, perhaps police officers and courts had erroneously applied the rule of Belton to inappropriate circumstances, and the Gant Court clarified the Court’s prior holding. Then again, perhaps Belton was written too broadly, and the passage of time allowed the Court to see its own error, which it corrected in Gant. In any event, students would be wise to memorize the rule set forth in Gant, which is easy for bar examiners (and law professors) to test.

    In 1973, the Court decided in United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, that police may lawfully open a cigarette package found upon an arrestee’s person during a search incident to arrest. Even though the arresting officer had no particular reason to believe that the cigarette package contained contraband or evidence of crime, the Court held the search permissible. The majority concluded that, so long as officers stay within the temporal and geographic constraints imposed in cases such as Chimel, no further quantum of evidence is required to justify a thorough search of the arrestee’s person, clothing, and immediate surroundings, along with inspection of papers and effects found during these searches. Accordingly, other than the probable cause necessary to justify the underlying arrest, no probable cause (or even reasonable suspicion) is required for a SILA.

    Although the rule of Robinson may seem relatively clear at first, the case did not resolve the common issue of locked containers seized incident to arrest; nor did it explicitly address the issue of closed (but not locked) containers found near (but not on the person of) the arrestee. In United States v Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 (1977) (abrogated on grounds unrelated to SILA law), the Court held that opening an arrestee’s luggage ninety minutes after the arrest could not be justified as “incident” to the arrest—the time delay was too great. But the Court did not decide whether a locked (or otherwise closed) container could be opened closer in time to the arrest. Lower courts have split on the question.2

    When the Court decided Riley v. California in 2014, it considered facts about a “container” that would have been unimaginable in 1973. Just a few decades ago, no arrestee had in his pocket a mini-computer full of private data, much less one capable of connecting to even more powerful computers with vast repositories of additional private information. Today, most arrestees carry such devices. The question before the Court was whether the rule from Robinson allows police to obtain data from a mobile phone found during a search incident to lawful arrest.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    David Leon Riley v. California

    Decided June 25, 2014 – 134 S. Ct. 2473

    Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

    [This] case[] raise[s] a common question: whether the police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.


    [P]etitioner David Riley was stopped by a police officer for driving with expired registration tags. In the course of the stop, the officer also learned that Riley’s license had been suspended. The officer impounded Riley’s car, pursuant to department policy, and another officer conducted an inventory search of the car. Riley was arrested for possession of concealed and loaded firearms when that search turned up two handguns under the car’s hood.

    An officer searched Riley incident to the arrest and found items associated with the “Bloods” street gang. He also seized a cell phone from Riley’s pants pocket. According to Riley’s uncontradicted assertion, the phone was a “smart phone,” a cell phone with a broad range of other functions based on advanced computing capability, large storage capacity, and Internet connectivity. The officer accessed information on the phone and noticed that some words (presumably in text messages or a contacts list) were preceded by the letters “CK”—a label that, he believed, stood for “Crip Killers,” a slang term for members of the Bloods gang.

    At the police station about two hours after the arrest, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the contents of the phone. The detective testified that he “went through” Riley’s phone “looking for evidence, because … gang members will often video themselves with guns or take pictures of themselves with the guns.” Although there was “a lot of stuff” on the phone, particular files that “caught [the detective’s] eye” included videos of young men sparring while someone yelled encouragement using the moniker “Blood.” The police also found photographs of Riley standing in front of a car they suspected had been involved in a shooting a few weeks earlier.

    Riley was ultimately charged, in connection with that earlier shooting, with firing at an occupied vehicle, assault with a semiautomatic firearm, and attempted murder. The State alleged that Riley had committed those crimes for the benefit of a criminal street gang, an aggravating factor that carries an enhanced sentence. Prior to trial, Riley moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone. He contended that the searches of his phone violated the Fourth Amendment, because they had been performed without a warrant and were not otherwise justified by exigent circumstances. The trial court rejected that argument. At Riley’s trial, police officers testified about the photographs and videos found on the phone, and some of the photographs were admitted into evidence. Riley was convicted on all three counts and received an enhanced sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

    The California Court of Appeal affirmed. The court relied on [] California Supreme Court [precedent], which held that the Fourth Amendment permits a warrantless search of cell phone data incident to an arrest, so long as the cell phone was immediately associated with the arrestee’s person.

    The California Supreme Court denied Riley’s petition for review and we granted certiorari.


    In the absence of a warrant, a search is reasonable only if it falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement.

    The [] case[] before us concern[s] the reasonableness of a warrantless search incident to a lawful arrest. In 1914, this Court first acknowledged in dictum “the right on the part of the Government, always recognized under English and American law, to search the person of the accused when legally arrested to discover and seize the fruits or evidences of crime.” Since that time, it has been well accepted that such a search constitutes an exception to the warrant requirement. Indeed, the label “exception” is something of a misnomer in this context, as warrantless searches incident to arrest occur with far greater frequency than searches conducted pursuant to a warrant.

    Although the existence of the exception for such searches has been recognized for a century, its scope has been debated for nearly as long. That debate has focused on the extent to which officers may search property found on or near the arrestee. [The Court then discussed the development of the law in Chimel, Robinson, and Gant.]


    [We now must] decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which 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. A smart phone of the sort taken from Riley was unheard of ten years ago; a significant majority of American adults now own such phones. [The] phone[] [is] based on technology nearly inconceivable just a few decades ago, when Chimel and Robinson were decided.

    Absent more precise guidance from the founding era, we generally determine whether to exempt a given type of search from the warrant requirement “by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual’s privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.”

    On the government interest side, [the Court held in Robinson] that the two risks identified in Chimel—harm to officers and destruction of evidence—are present in all custodial arrests. There are no comparable risks when the search is of digital data. In addition, any privacy interests retained by an individual after arrest [are] significantly diminished by the fact of the arrest itself. Cell phones, however, place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals. A search of the information on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the type of brief physical search [we have previously] considered.

    We therefore hold [] that officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search.


    In doing so, we do not overlook … that searches of a person incident to arrest, “while based upon the need to disarm and to discover evidence,” are reasonable regardless of “the probability in a particular arrest situation that weapons or evidence would in fact be found.” Rather than requiring [] “case-by-case adjudication” … we ask instead whether application of the search incident to arrest doctrine to this particular category of effects would “untether the rule from the justifications underlying the [] exception.”


    Digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape. 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.

    Perhaps the same might have been said of the cigarette pack seized from Robinson’s pocket. Once an officer gained control of the pack, it was unlikely that Robinson could have accessed the pack’s contents. But unknown physical objects may always pose risks, no matter how slight, during the tense atmosphere of a custodial arrest. The officer in Robinson testified that he could not identify the objects in the cigarette pack but knew they were not cigarettes. Given that, a further search was a reasonable protective measure. No such unknowns exist with respect to digital data.

    California suggest[s] that a search of cell phone data might help ensure officer safety in more indirect ways, for example by alerting officers that confederates of the arrestee are headed to the scene. There is undoubtedly a strong government interest in warning officers about such possibilities, but [] California offers [no] evidence to suggest that their concerns are based on actual experience. The proposed consideration would also represent a broadening of Chimel’s concern that an arrestee himself might grab a weapon and use it against an officer “to resist arrest or effect his escape.” And any such threats from outside the arrest scene do not “lurk[ ] in all custodial arrests.” Accordingly, the interest in protecting officer safety does not justify dispensing with the warrant requirement across the board. To the extent dangers to arresting officers may be implicated in a particular way in a particular case, they are better addressed through consideration of case-specific exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as the one for exigent circumstances.


    California focus[es] primarily on … preventing the destruction of evidence. Riley concede[s] that officers could have seized and secured [his] cell phone[] to prevent destruction of evidence while seeking a warrant. That is a sensible concession. And once law enforcement officers have secured a cell phone, there is no longer any risk that the arrestee himself will be able to delete incriminating data from the phone.

    California argue[s] that information on a cell phone may nevertheless be vulnerable to two types of evidence destruction unique to digital data—remote wiping and data encryption. As an initial matter, these broader concerns about the loss of evidence are distinct from Chimel’s focus on a defendant who responds to arrest by trying to conceal or destroy evidence within his reach. With respect to remote wiping, the Government’s primary concern turns on the actions of third parties who are not present at the scene of arrest. And data encryption is even further afield. [That] focuses on the ordinary operation of a phone’s security features, apart from any active attempt by a defendant or his associates to conceal or destroy evidence upon arrest.

    We have also been given little reason to believe that either problem is prevalent. Moreover, in situations in which an arrest might trigger a remote-wipe attempt or an officer discovers an unlocked phone, it is not clear that the ability to conduct a warrantless search would make much of a difference. The need to effect the arrest, secure the scene, and tend to other pressing matters means that law enforcement officers may well not be able to turn their attention to a cell phone right away.

    In any event, as to remote wiping, law enforcement is not without specific means to address the threat. Remote wiping can be fully prevented by disconnecting a phone from the network. There are at least two simple ways to do this: First, law enforcement officers can turn the phone off or remove its battery. Second, if they are concerned about encryption or other potential problems, they can leave a phone powered on and place it in a [] “Faraday bag.”

    To the extent that law enforcement still has specific concerns about the potential loss of evidence in a particular case, there remain more targeted ways to address those concerns. If “the police are truly confronted with a ‘now or never’ situation,” they may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to search the phone immediately.


    The search incident to arrest exception rests not only on the heightened government interests at stake in a volatile arrest situation, but also on an arrestee’s reduced privacy interests upon being taken into police custody.

    The fact that an arrestee has diminished privacy interests does not, [however,] mean that the Fourth Amendment falls out of the picture entirely. Not every search “is acceptable solely because a person is in custody.” To the contrary, when “privacy-related concerns are weighty enough” a “search may require a warrant, notwithstanding the diminished expectations of privacy of the arrestee.”

    The [Government] asserts that a search of all data stored on a cell phone is “materially indistinguishable” from searches [] of physical items. That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon. Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together. A conclusion that inspecting the contents of an arrestee’s pockets works no substantial additional intrusion on privacy beyond the arrest itself may make sense as applied to physical items, but any extension of that reasoning to digital data has to rest on its own bottom.


    Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person. The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.

    One of the most notable distinguishing features of modern cell phones is their immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and tended as a general matter to constitute only a narrow intrusion on privacy. Most people cannot lug around every piece of mail they have received for the past several months, every picture they have taken, or every book or article they have read—nor would they have any reason to attempt to do so. And if they did, they would have to drag behind them a trunk of the sort held to require a search warrant in Chadwick, rather than a container the size of the cigarette package in Robinson.

    The storage capacity of cell phones has several interrelated consequences for privacy. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information—an address, a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video—that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier. A person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones; he would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several months, as would routinely be kept on a phone.

    Finally, there is an element of pervasiveness that characterizes cell phones but not physical records. Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day. A decade ago police officers searching an arrestee might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary. But those discoveries were likely to be few and far between. Today, by contrast, it is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90% of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives—from the mundane to the intimate. Allowing the police to scrutinize such records on a routine basis is quite different from allowing them to search a personal item or two in the occasional case.

    Although the data stored on a cell phone is distinguished from physical records by quantity alone, certain types of data are also qualitatively different. An Internet search and browsing history, for example, can be found on an Internet-enabled phone and could reveal an individual’s private interests or concerns—perhaps a search for certain symptoms of disease, coupled with frequent visits to WebMD. Data on a cell phone can also reveal where a person has been. Historic location information is a standard feature on many smart phones and can reconstruct someone’s specific movements down to the minute, not only around town but also within a particular building.

    In 1926, Learned Hand observed (in an opinion later quoted in Chimel) that it is “a totally different thing to search a man’s pockets and use against him what they contain, from ransacking his house for everything which may incriminate him.” If his pockets contain a cell phone, however, that is no longer true. Indeed, a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house: A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form—unless the phone is.


    To further complicate the scope of the privacy interests at stake, the data a user views on many modern cell phones may not in fact be stored on the device itself. Treating a cell phone as a container whose contents may be searched incident to an arrest is a bit strained as an initial matter. But the analogy crumbles entirely when a cell phone is used to access data located elsewhere, at the tap of a screen. Moreover, the same type of data may be stored locally on the device for one user and in the cloud for another. [O]fficers searching a phone’s data would not typically know whether the information they are viewing was stored locally at the time of the arrest or has been pulled from the cloud. The possibility that a search might extend well beyond papers and effects in the physical proximity of an arrestee is yet another reason that the privacy interests here dwarf those in Robinson.


    We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.

    Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest. Our cases have historically recognized that the warrant requirement is “an important working part of our machinery of government,” not merely “an inconvenience to be somehow ‘weighed’ against the claims of police efficiency.”

    Moreover, even though the search incident to arrest exception does not apply to cell phones, other case-specific exceptions may still justify a warrantless search of a particular phone. “One well-recognized exception applies when ‘“the exigencies of the situation’ make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.’” Such exigencies could include the need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence in individual cases, to pursue a fleeing suspect, and to assist persons who are seriously injured or are threatened with imminent injury.

    In light of the availability of the exigent circumstances exception, there is no reason to believe that law enforcement officers will not be able to address some of the more extreme hypotheticals that have been suggested: a suspect texting an accomplice who, it is feared, is preparing to detonate a bomb, or a child abductor who may have information about the child’s location on his cell phone. The defendants here recognize—indeed, they stress—that such fact-specific threats may justify a warrantless search of cell phone data. The critical point is that, unlike the search incident to arrest exception, the exigent circumstances exception requires a court to examine whether an emergency justified a warrantless search in each particular case.

    Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life.” The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.

    We reverse and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    Justice ALITO, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

    I agree that we should not mechanically apply the rule used in the predigital era to the search of a cell phone. Many cell phones now in use are capable of storing and accessing a quantity of information, some highly personal, that no person would ever have had on his person in hard-copy form. This calls for a new balancing of law enforcement and privacy interests.

    The Court strikes this balance in favor of privacy interests with respect to all cell phones and all information found in them, and this approach leads to anomalies. For example, the Court’s broad holding favors information in digital form over information in hard-copy form. Suppose that two suspects are arrested. Suspect number one has in his pocket a monthly bill for his land-line phone, and the bill lists an incriminating call to a long-distance number. He also has in his a wallet a few snapshots, and one of these is incriminating. Suspect number two has in his pocket a cell phone, the call log of which shows a call to the same incriminating number. In addition, a number of photos are stored in the memory of the cell phone, and one of these is incriminating. Under established law, the police may seize and examine the phone bill and the snapshots in the wallet without obtaining a warrant, but under the Court’s holding today, the information stored in the cell phone is out.

    While the Court’s approach leads to anomalies, I do not see a workable alternative. Law enforcement officers need clear rules regarding searches incident to arrest, and it would take many cases and many years for the courts to develop more nuanced rules. And during that time, the nature of the electronic devices that ordinary Americans carry on their persons would continue to change.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    Although the Court considered a different question in Carpenter v. United States (Chapter 5)—the issue was whether a “search” occurred at all when police obtained historical mobile phone location data—students likely noticed that the majority opinions in Carpenter and Riley (both by Chief Justice Roberts) made similar observations about the importance of protecting the privacy of data related to modern telephones. As Justice Alito noted in his Riley concurrence, the Court will occasionally reach results that are not satisfying to anyone desiring perfect theoretical coherence in the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. The Court must decide the cases before it, and its case-by-case balance of competing interests (such as privacy and crime control) will depend on the facts of individual cases, as well as the march of technological change.

    Let’s reconsider Jay-Z’s predicament in “99 Problems.” If an officer arrests Jay-Z for reckless driving after catching him driving 75 in a 55 mph zone, can the officer search the trunk for drugs?

    What if instead the officer stops Jay-Z for speeding, looks up the license plate, and sees that Los Angeles County has an outstanding warrant for Jay-Z’s arrest for the crime of marijuana possession. Now can the officer search the trunk?

    Two additional points to consider:

    When an unarrested third party is near a car, there may be authority for a “sweep” (to quickly search the vehicle for dangerous items third parties could use).

    When an unarrested third party is at a house that police wish to search, police likely can secure the house temporarily as they seek a warrant (to prevent mischief by, say, Chimel’s wife). This rule applies only if police have probable cause; otherwise, they cannot obtain a warrant.