Convicted felon David Riley, whose smartphone held photographs that led police to suspect him in a shooting, has reason to be cheerful today.
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that authorities generally need a search warrant before they can scour the contents of a cell phone. The court overturned a judgment of the California Court of Appeals, which had affirmed a trial court ruling that the search did not violate Riley’s Fourth Amendment rights.
“The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought," Chief Justice John Roberts concluded in the opinion. “Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant."
The Fourth Amendment requires warrants for searches and seizures, although the Supreme Court has carved out a number of exceptions over the years. For a century, the court has acknowledged the right of police to search a person being arrested, without a warrant. And such a right has been extended to include searches within the immediate area of a person who has been arrested to protect officers and prevent the destruction of evidence.
Commenting on the modern era, Roberts characterized the wireless phone as “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy."
But in weighing the intrusion of a person’s privacy against the extent to which warrantless searches are needed to promote legitimate government interests, Roberts noted the absence of harm to officers in connection with the search of digital data on a cell phone.
“Once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats … data on the phone can endanger no one," Roberts wrote.