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.
The court wasn’t persuaded by the federal government’s arguments that police need to search a device to prevent the destruction of evidence. Authorities have expressed concerns that the data on a cell phone can be remotely encrypted and wiped clean.
“We have also been given little reason to believe that either problem is prevalent. The briefing reveals only a couple of anecdotal examples of remote wiping triggered by an arrest,” Roberts said. “Similarly, the opportunities for officers to search a password-protected phone before data becomes encrypted are quite limited.”
The court’s decision disposed of two cases. Police stopped David Riley because he was driving with unregistered tags. Riley was arrested after officers found handguns under the car hood, and authorities seized a smartphone in his possession.
During a search of the device, police uncovered photos of Riley standing in front of a vehicle that they suspected was involved in a prior shooting. During his trial, officers testified about evidence found on his phone, including photographs and videos.
Riley ultimately was charged and convicted of firing at an occupied vehicle, assault with a semi-automatic firearm and attempted murder – leading to an enhanced sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
In the second case, officers arrested Brima Wurie after they allegedly saw the suspect selling drugs from a car. After seizing two cell phones from Wurie, officers noticed one of the devices ringing repeatedly.
Authorities traced the phone number to an apartment where Wurie lived, obtained a search warrant, and subsequently found and seized 215 grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a firearm and ammunition, and cash.
Wurie was convicted on three counts of distributing crack cocaine, possessing crack cocaine with the intent to distribute, and being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition.
A trial court denied his request to suppress evidence obtained from the search of the apartment. A divided panel of a federal appellate court overturned the denial of the motion and vacated Wurie’s conviction for possession with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm as a felon.