Striking a solid blow for digital privacy, the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled on June 25, 2014 that police must obtain a warrant before searching a cell phone confiscated during an arrest. Likening modern cell phones to “minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone,” the Court reasoned that these devices can contain “the sum of an individual’s private life” through “addresses, notes, prescriptions, bank statements, videos” and “a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions.” Holding that a cell phone’s portability should not make it fair game for warrantless search and seizure, the Court stated, “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.” The case potentially affects tens of millions of Americans, for as many as half of all adult Americans (and all the Supreme Court justices?) own smart phones.
The specific case is Riley v. California, an appeal from a criminal conviction stemming from a traffic stop on August 22, 2009. San Diego police pulled over David L. Riley for driving with an expired license plate. After finding firearms in Riley’s car, police arrested him, seized his cell phone, reviewed the phone’s contents and downloaded the data. In combination with other evidence, the phone’s data led police to charge Riley with an unrelated shooting that occurred weeks before his arrest. Riley’s trial attorney moved to suppress the phone evidence based on Riley’s 4th Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure. The trial court held that the evidence was legally obtained “incident to arrest,” an exception to 4th Amendment protection, and admitted the evidence. Riley was convicted and appealed, lost in the California Court of Appeals, and then petitioned the U. S. Supreme Court to review the decision.
Acknowledging that the Court’s decision will make criminal investigations more difficult, Chief Justice Roberts stated, “Privacy comes at a cost” and police wishing to search cell phones must simply “get a warrant.”
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