Riley v. California: The Constitutionality of Cell Phone Searches

Riley v. California: The Constitutionality of Cell Phone Searches

Recently there has been a string of cases issued from the Nation's highest court, The United States Supreme Court, all the way to Washington State's Appellant Court. These rulings all revolve around your extremely private affairs. This series of blogs will not only connect the dots of these cases, but also reconnect us as my practice has taken me away from my previous regular posting.


Recently there has been a string of cases issued from the Nation's highest court, The United States Supreme Court, all the way to Washington State's 

Appellant Court. These rulings all revolve around your extremely private affairs. This series of blogs will not only connect the dots of these cases, but also reconnect us as my practice has taken me away from my previous regular posting. 

The United States Supreme Court issued RILEY v. CALIFORNIA on June 25, 2014. I recently discussed the case with Dillon Honcoop, which you can listen to in my podcasts, right here. The facts of this are what drove the court's ruling as much as the recognition of just what century we are now in, something Courts rarely recognize. 

Mr. Riley was stopped for a traffic violation, which eventually led to his arrest on weapons charges. An officer searching Riley once he was arrested found and seized a cell phone from Riley's pants pocket. The officer then accessed information on the phone and noticed the repeated use of a term associated with a street gang. At the police station two hours later, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the phone's digital contents. At this point, there was no warrant to examine the phone any further than simply taking it from Mr. Riley upon his arrest. Based in part on photographs and videos that the detective found on the phone, the State charged Riley in connection with a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier and also sought an enhanced sentence based on Mr. Riley's gang membership. Counsel for Mr. Riley moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone. It was argued that the search of the phone was "warrantless." The trial court denied the motion, and Riley was convicted in part due to the materials found on the cell phone. Mr. Riley appealed and the California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's ruling that the evidence was admissible. Mr. Riley appealed further to the Supreme Court alleging a 4th Amendment violation – an unlawful search of the phone. The appeal was permitted and joined with another case. 

Mr. Wurie was arrested after police observed him participate in an apparent drug sale. At the police station, the officers also seized a cell phone from Mr. Wurie's and then noticed that the phone was receiving multiple calls from a source, an assigned contact, identified as "my house" on its external screen. The officers opened the phone, accessed its call log, determined the number associated with the "my house" label, and traced that number to what they suspected was Wurie's apartment. Based upon gaining access to the cell phone without a warrant, the officers secured a search warrant and then when the house was searched found drugs, a firearm and ammunition, and cash in the ensuing search. Wurie was then charged with drug and firearm offenses. He was convicted after a trial judge permitted the evidence in a trial and his case because it was a cell phone search was joined with Riley. 

The Supreme Court found that both judges and lower court were wrong as a matter of law. The ruling issued but the Supreme Court is: The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. This is not to say that they cannot search the cell phones, but they must do it legally, properly and with respect to the arrested person's rights. The 4th Amendment of US Constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. The key concept is that of "reasonableness." When a person is searched after an arrest it is reasonable to search them for weapons and seize those for officer safety. But to find something like a cell phone and then proceed to look through it, that is a secondary search and it is done without a warrant. The search is permissible but only after a warrant issued by a judge, permits it. That was the problem here-the officers conducted a search that was unreasonable under the circumstances in part because of how simple obtaining a warrant was and because there was no reason to look in the phone. When police violate a person's Constitutional right the evidence they find is called "fruit of the poisonous tree," and the evidence is deemed inadmissible. 

In regards to this case, the rational from the Court, (all 9 justices agreed) a search warrant is required because modern cell phones have an immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on privacy. But cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos. This has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phone's capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. Third, data on the phone can date back for years. In addition, an element of pervasiveness characterizes cell phones but not physical records. A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives. The scope of the privacy interests at stake is further complicated by the fact that the data viewed on many modern cell phones may in fact be stored on a remote server. Thus, a search may extend well beyond papers and effects in the physical proximity of an arrestee, a concern that the United States recognizes but cannot definitively foreclose. It is true that this decision will have some impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. But the Court's holding is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is that a warrant is generally required before a search. The warrant requirement is an important component of the Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, and warrants may be obtained with increasing efficiency. In addition, although the search incident to arrest exception does not apply to cell phones, the continued availability of the exigent circumstances exception may give law enforcement a justification for a warrantless search in particular cases. 

Although all Justices agreed, one wrote additionally where the brave new world we live in was recognized: 

Many cell phones now in use are capable of storing and accessing a quantity of information, some highly personal, that no person would ever have had on his person in hard-copy form. This calls for a new balancing of law enforcement and privacy interests. The Court strikes this balance in favor of privacy interests with respect to all cell phones and all information found in them, and this approach leads to anomalies (it favors information in digital form over information in hard-copy form). In addition, a number of photos are stored in the memory of the cell phone, and one of these is incriminating. Under established law, the police may seize and examine the phone bill and the snap-shots in an arrested person's wallet without obtaining a warrant, but under the Court's holding today, the information stored in the cell phone is out. While the Court's approach leads to anomalies, I do not see a workable alternative. Law enforcement officers need clear rules regarding searches incident to arrest, and it would take many cases and many years for the courts to develop more nuanced rules. Modern cell phones are of great value for both lawful and unlawful purposes. They can be used in committing many serious crimes, and they present new and difficult law enforcement problems. At the same time, because of the role that these devices have come to play in contemporary life, searching their contents implicates very sensitive privacy interests that this Court is poorly positioned to understand and evaluate. Many forms of modern technology are making it easier and easier for both government and private entities to amass a wealth of information about the lives of ordinary Americans, and at the same time, many ordinary Americans are choosing to make public much information that was seldom revealed to outsiders just a few decades ago. In light of these developments, it would be very unfortunate if privacy protection in the 21st century were left primarily to the federal courts using the blunt instrument of the Fourth Amendment. Legislatures, elected by the people, are in a better position than we are to assess and respond to the changes that have already occurred and those that almost certainly will take place in the future. 

As important as this ruling is, it remains to be seen just how far it will protect privacy rights when those same devices are used to make a person's private life public- social media for example. If a cell phone is searched and what is found and used, and only this is used, when the contents show private affairs open to the public, is it fair game? How does this ruling apply to DUI cases? The next two blogs will address this, but what is foreshadowed is how far the Court is willing to go in defining and protecting "private affairs."