Canadian Supreme Court Lets Police Conduct Warrantless Cell Phone Searches of Arrestees


Credit: C-SPAN

In June 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that police officers who search the cell phones of arrested individuals without first obtaining a search warrant are in violation of the Fourth Amendment. "Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple," declared Chief Justice John Roberts in Riley v. California: "get a warrant."

The Canadian Supreme Court, by contrast, has decided to give its country's police officers much more room to maneuver. In a decision handed down this week, Canada's high court ruled that a warrantless cell phone search incident to arrest is perfectly legitimate under Canadian law. Sean Fine of Toronto's Globe and Mail has the story:

In a crime ruling that earned it rare praise from the federal government, the Supreme Court of Canada said police may search cellphones without a warrant when they make an arrest.

Cellphones are the bread and butter of the drug trade, the majority said in a 4-3 ruling. It said police have been given the "extraordinary power" to do warrantless searches during an arrest, under common-law rules developed by judges over centuries, because of the importance of prompt police investigations. Until now, those searches typically included purses and briefcases….

"Prompt access by law enforcement to the contents of a cellphone may serve the purpose of identifying accomplices or locating and preserving evidence that might otherwise be lost or destroyed," Justice Thomas Cromwell wrote for the majority, joined by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justices Richard Wagner and Michael Moldaver.