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Court: Cops Need a Warrant to Open Your Phone, Even Just to Look at the Screen

Citing a major Supreme Court decision, an Illinois judge has ruled that turning on a phone’s screen is now considered a “search.”

In a major decision back in 2014, the Supreme Court finally ruled that police need a warrant to search someone's cellphone when making an arrest.

That case, Riley v. California, was a major privacy victory. Now, it's being interpreted by a federal court in Illinois to mean that even opening a phone to look at the screen qualifies as a "search" and requires a warrant.

The Illinois case involves a sting operation that ensnared Demontae Bell, an alleged drug dealer accused of illegal possession of an AK-47 assault rifle. An officer testified that while interrogating Bell he pulled out a confiscated flip phone and opened it, revealing a picture of the rifle, which Bell had set as his home screen's wallpaper. That was then used as grounds for a warrant to search Bell's phone for metadata about when and where the photo was taken. The officer claimed he opened the phone in order to turn it off.

But on Wednesday, the judge ruled police have no right to open a suspect's phone and look at the screen without first getting a warrant, even if it's just to turn it off, since the Riley case clearly established doing so is a "search" under the Fourth Amendment.

"Officer Sinks' opening of Bell's cell phone exceeded a 'cursory inspection' because he exposed to view concealed portions of the object—i.e., the screen," wrote Judge James E. Shahid. "[B]ecause Officer Sinks had to manipulate the phone to view the picture on the screen, that picture was by definition not in 'plain view'."

That suggests that even if your device isn't locked with a passcode, a cop wouldn't be allowed to turn on the screen and look for incriminating notifications or messages without a search warrant.

The Supreme Court did say there are "exigent circumstances" for allowing warrantless searches, however, including imminent threats to officer safety (checking if there's a razor blade concealed in the phone's case, for example) and preventing destruction of evidence (preventing the phone from receiving a remote wiping command).

"Yet neither the government's response, nor the warrant affidavit, asserted that the officer in this case opened Bell's cell phone out of concern for officer safety or preservation of evidence," Judge Shahid wrote. Thus, "The search of Bell's cell phone violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures."

Nevertheless, the judge denied Bell's motion to suppress evidence from the illegal search, reasoning that based on other testimony given about Bell's illegal rifle, "the photo would have ultimately been discovered."