Police Need a Warrant to Search Cell Phones During an Arrest, Supreme Court Rules

(Written for a Justia client, July 2014. Used with permission.)

Police must obtain a warrant in order to search digital information stored on a suspect's cell phone, according to a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Riley v. California, Nos. 13-132, 13-212, slip op. (Sup. Ct., Jun. 25, 2014). The court combined two cases in its decision, both of which involved similar facts but contradictory lower court rulings. The Supreme Court proceedings received media attention because of statements by the justices indicating a wide range of perceptions of mobile phone technology, and how it is commonly used in our society.

Both underlying cases involve warrantless searches of cell phones. The first case, Riley v. California, involved a traffic stop for allegedly expired registration tags. The officer impounded the defendant's car upon learning that his driver's license was suspended, and an inventory search of the vehicle led to the defendant's arrest for firearm possession. An officer claimed to have found gang-related items on the defendant's person. The officer and a detective searched his phone and found text messages and media files allegedly related to gang activity, including a photo of the defendant standing next to a car believed to have been involved in an earlier shooting. The defendant was charged with and convicted of several offense related to the shooting, based in part on the evidence found on the cell phone. The trial court denied a motion to suppress, and the convictions were upheld on appeal.

The second case, United States v. Wurie, began with an arrest after police surveillance observed the defendant allegedly making a drug sale. At the police station, officers noticed that the defendant's phone was receiving multiple calls. They looked at the phone's call log and traced the incoming phone number using an online directory. They went to the address, where they observed a woman who resembled the woman in the cell phone's background photo. They obtained a search warrant for the apartment and seized drugs, drug paraphernalia, and weapons from the residence. The trial court denied the defendant's motion to suppress, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and vacated the conviction, holding that the warrantless search of the cell phone violated the Fourth Amendment.

During oral argument before the Supreme Court, the justices demonstrated different levels of  understanding of how cell phones works and how people use them. Chief Justice Roberts, for example, suggested that it might be reasonable for police to suspect that a person is dealing drugs solely because the person is carrying two cell phones. Justice Kagan, meanwhile, noted that smart phones often include both physically-stored media and data that is actually stored in the "cloud," vastly expanding the amount of information that a person carries with them at all times.

Ultimately, a unanimous court reversed the California court and affirmed the First Circuit, holding that police must obtain a warrant to search data on a cell phone. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the court's opinion, holding that "Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans 'the privacies of life.'" Riley, slip op. at 28, quoting Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616 (1886).http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/573/13-132/

© David C. Wells 2014