Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held, in Riley v. California, that law enforcement officers must get a warrant before searching cellular or wireless telephones seized from persons under arrest.
Riley actually involved two cases. In the first, David Riley was stopped by police for an expired tag. The officer discovered Riley’s license had expired and searched his car prior to impounding it. The search uncovered two concealed, loaded handguns in violation of California law, and a police officer seized Riley’s cellphone. Riley was charged and moved to suppress certain allegedly gang-related evidence obtained from his phone. The trial court denied the motion and Riley was convicted.
In the second case, police observed Brima Wurie allegedly make a drug sale from his car. The officers arrested Wurie and subsequently seized his cellphone. The officers used Wurie’s phone to find his apartment and obtained a warrant to search the apartment. Inside the apartment, the officers found crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a firearm and ammunition, and cash. Wurie was charged and moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of his apartment, arguing that it was the fruit of an unconstitutional search of his phone. The court denied the motion, and Wurie was convicted.
In an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court began by noting the venerable exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a search warrant for searches of the person of someone who has been arrested. The purpose of the exception for searches “incident to arrest” is to remove any weapons which the arrestee might use to resist arrest or escape.
The Court recognized that “smart phones,” which would have been inconceivable at the time its previous cases defining the exception for searches incident to arrest were decided, have now become an integral part of daily life. Justice Roberts observed that “Cell phones… place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals.” Such phones “are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone.”
The Court declined to extend the exception to the warrant requirement for searches following a person’s arrest to cellphones. It found that there is typically no danger to officers from cellphones and that once a phone is seized, there is usually no longer any risk that incriminating information will be deleted from the phone. As Justice Roberts concluded, “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.”
The Court noted that its limitation on searches of cellphones following arrest did not completely rule out searches of cellphones without a warrant. It recognized that a cellphone could conceivably be searched without a warrant under the exception to the Fourth Amendment for searches under “exigent,” or urgent, circumstances.
The Riley decision has placed a much needed limit on the growing intrusiveness of law enforcement searches of an individual’s person—at a time when most individuals carry large amounts of information about their personal lives in their pockets, making even a personal search as invasive of a citizen’s privacy as a search of one’s private papers or personal computer.
“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.” –Thomas Jefferson