Search Warrants for Digital Devices

The U.S. Supreme Court recently observed that digital devices “have become important tools [for] … criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals.”1 Law enforcement officers need to know how to obtain that information lawfully, so that it may be used in court. But the rules for digital searches sometimes differ from those for physical searches, and the law regarding digital searches is evolving rapidly. This article is a practical guide to obtaining and executing a valid search warrant for a digital device.2

A warrant is normally required to search a digital device. Under most circumstances, individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of their digital devices, such as cellphones, tablets, and personal computers. Therefore, the Fourth Amendment requires a law enforcement officer to obtain a search warrant before searching such a device, unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies. The U.S. Supreme Court recently eliminated one important exception when it held that a digital device may not be searched incident to arrest.3 Thus, a search warrant will often be necessary to search a suspect’s digital devices.