SCOTUS: Cops Need a Warrant to Search Cell Phones


Riley v. California: Supreme Court of the United States Says Law Enforcement May Not Look at Contents of Cell Phone without Warrant

Can a cop seize your smart phone or flip-top phone and have his way with it — combing through such devices (despite the lack of a search warrant) in a desperate effort to find incriminating evidence against you?

Riley-v-californiaThe U.S. Supreme Court last year finally addressed the issue, perhaps with an eye toward ensuring future protection of an individual’s Fourth Amendment (privacy) rights pertaining to other high-tech devices, such as laptop computers. But first, allow me to address the landmark Riley v. California case, which concerns smart phones.

In June 2014, the high court ruled in the Riley case, saying that police may only peruse cell-phone information after obtaining a search warrant showing that probable cause exists to investigate the phone’s data during the course of a legitimate criminal investigation. The decision applies to all manner of cell phones, regardless of whether they are “smart phones” or “flip tops.”

The ruling states that high-tech phones are basically computers that contain personal information protected under privacy laws, and that the data is off-limits to police unless a warrant has been obtained. Searching a cell phone is not akin to, say, searching through someone’s pockets in order to determine the existence of a weapon that could cause bodily harm to the arresting officer. In essence, the court pooh-poohed prosecutors’ far-fetched notion of a “cell phone bomb.”

Understanding the background of the case may help to put the ruling into perspective. A man named David Leon Riley was stopped by a San Diego police officer in August 2009 for expired registration tags. The officer also discovered that Riley was driving with a suspended driver’s license.

During the traffic stop, Riley was arrested after police seized his cell phone and examined its contents. It yielded photographs, messages and other information indicating that Riley was a member of a gang that was allegedly involved in a gangland shooting a few weeks earlier. The information later provided investigators with evidence against him in relation to the gang shooting. Police did not have a warrant to search the phone during the arrest. During a subsequent search of his vehicle, which had been impounded, two guns were discovered under the hood. Testing confirmed that the weapons had been used in the gangland murder for which Riley and his gang had been suspected. However, prior to the traffic-stop arrest, Riley had never been definitively identified by witnesses as one of the shooters. Partly because of the information obtained through the warrantless cell phone seizure and search, Riley was indicted and convicted of the shooting, despite the efforts of his attorneys who had sought to suppress the evidence based on the lack of a warrant. On appeal, another court upheld the conviction, which led to another appeal and Supreme Court review.

Arguing for Riley, Stanford law professor Jeffrey L. Fisher argued that there are very profound problems with searching a smart phone without a warrant. It could open up “every American’s entire life to the police department, not just at the scene but later at their station house and downloaded into their computer forever.” Put simply, if police can search your cell phone without a warrant, they basically can access your entire life – and that’s not only wrong from moral and ethical standpoints, but it’s unconstitutional.

Delivering the unanimous majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected prosecutors’ arguments that a cell phone falls under previously established warrantless search criteria regarding the safety of an arresting officer. The digital data “cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape,” he wrote.
“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,” the opinion states.

Thus, it is worth knowing that police are not allowed to search through the information contained within your smart phone without a judge’s warrant showing probable cause. It also worth noting that there may be other implications to the ruling as well, as could be the first step toward establishing a legal precedent of Fourth Amendment rights involving computers and laptops. Since the Riley decision, lower courts have been taking up similar issues and citing the opinion in one way or another. I will take up these related cases in a separate blog postings.

In the meantime, supporters of the Fourth Amendment and others who are concerned about their guaranteed rights to privacy may take a little comfort in knowing that like a home, the Supreme Court in Riley v. California believes that an individual’s smart phone is his “castle” — and law enforcement has no business barging into it unless they have a signed warrant from a judge.

About our Attorney

Elizabeth B. Carpenter is a New Orleans criminal defense attorney who practices in both federal courts and Louisiana state courts.


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