Got A Cell Phone? Get A Warrant.

David Riley was charged with a gang related shooting that allegedly occurred in San Diego county.  He was arrested and questioned at the police department.  At the police station a detective examined the contents of Mr. Riley’s cell phone.  The officer testified that “he went through Riley’s cell phone looking for evidence, because gang members will often video themselves with guns or take pictures of themselves with guns.”  Riley v. California (2014)  573 U.S. –.  According to the police officer the thing that ‘caught his eye’ on the cell phone was a video of men sparring while someone yelled “Blood” which the officer considered a gang moniker.  Officers also located photos of Riley standing in front of the car they believed was involved in the shooting.  Riley moved to suppress the evidence located on his phone.  His suppression motion was denied by the court.  That denial was affirmed by the Court of Appeals because back in 2011 the California Supreme Court held a warrantless search of a person’s cell phone was permissible under the Fourth Amendment so long as the search occurred incident to arrest and the phone was immediately associated with the arrestee’s person.  People v. Diaz (2011) 51 Cal.4th 84.  The US Supremes granted review.

The Supreme Court stated with a recitation of the language of the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The court traced the history of Fourth Amendment cases that discuss the exceptions of the warrant requirement and specifically focused on the search incident to arrest exception.  The reason a search incident to arrest is an exception to the warrant requirement is two fold.  One, to protect officers safety.  If a person is being arrested and they have a weapon on them law enforcement should be able to search and find that weapon so it isn’t used against them.  Two, to prevent the destruction of evidence.  This exception, according to the United States Supreme Court, is limited and has to be evaluated on a case by cases basis.

The Court, in striking down Diaz, explained that the rationale underpinning the warrant exception in a search incident to arrest does not apply to a cell phone.

The fact that an arrestee has diminished privacy interests does not mean that the Fourth Amendment falls out of the picture entirely.  Not every search is acceptable solely because a person is in custody.  Riley, supra, 573 U.S. –.

Chief Justice Roberts went on to point out the enormous amount of information contained on modern cell phones.

Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.  The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand, many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone.  They could just as easily be called camera, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers.

One of the most notable distinguishing features of modern call phones is their immense storage capacity.  Before cell phones, a search of the person was limited by physical realities and tended as a general matter to constitute only a narrow intrusion on privacy.  (Citation omitted).  Most people cannot lug around every piece of mail they have received for the past several months, every picture they have taken, or every book or article they have read – nor would they have any reasons to attempt to do so.  And if they did, they would have to drag behind them a trunk of the sort held to require a search warrant….

The court also considered the significant amount of highly personal data contained on a cell phone.  The court was mindful of law enforcement’s concerns about remote wiping of phones but pointed out if a person’s phone was being searched incident to arrest the remote wiping was being done by a third party.  The arrestee has no control over whether or not the phone is being wiped at that moment.

Lastly the court recognized that their decision may hamper law enforcement efforts in certain instances. The high court’s decision may deprive law enforcement of valuable information about criminal enterprises in certain circumstances.  However, as Justice Roberts put it “[p]rivacy comes at a cost”.

The significance of the court’s decision in Riley cannot be underestimated.  This is probably the most important Fourth Amendment decision in a decade.  This decision recognizes the extraordinary amount of personal, private information people maintain on their cell phones and strikes an important victory for all of our civil rights.