United States Supreme Court Limits Scope of Cell Phone Searches

In Riley v. California 2014 U.S. LEXIS 4497, 573 U.S. 1 (2014) the United States Supreme Court addressed whether individuals have a Fourth Amendment protection from an unwarranted search of their cell phone and the data it contains. The Court concluded that a search of the contents of a cell phone or smart phone usually requires a search warrant.

The Court noted how the immense amount of storage phones have today could lead to a serious violation of an individual's privacy. Id.33-43. "Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day," as they would today. Id. at 36.

Today these phones can hold, "millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos," (Id. at 34), and even the most basic phones contain "photographs, picture messages, text messages, Internet browsing history, a calendar, a thousand-entry phone book, and so on." Id. at 35.

The case Riley v. California stems from two separate cases, in which both defendants David Riley and Brima Wurie had their phones searched by police without warrant. Both Riley and Wurie were charged with additional crimes after police used information found in their phones.

After being arrested for an apparent drug sale Brima Wurie's "flip phone" (a more basic phone with a small range of features) was searched by police. Id. at 12-13. After searching the phone, police found a phone number which they were able to track to Wurie's residence and, as a result, received a warrant to search his home. Id. at 13. Following the search of his home, Wurie was additionally charged with distribution and felony possession. Id.

After an arrest for concealed and loaded firearms, David Riley had his "smart phone" (a phone with a much broader range of other functions based on advanced computing capability, large storage capacity, and Internet connectivity) searched by police. Id. at 9-11. In so doing, the police found a photo which they were able to use to connect Riley with an involvement in an earlier shooting. Id. at 11

The Court states in its opinion that "[n]ot every search 'is acceptable solely because a person is in custody.'" Id. at 32 (Citations omitted). "To the contrary, when 'privacy-related concerns are weighty enough' a 'search may require a warrant,'" even with an arrestee's diminished expectations of privacy. Id. (Citations omitted). However, it is entirely reasonable for the arresting officer to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee's person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction," (Id.at 17), although both Riley and Wurie concede that "officers could have seized and secured their cell phones to prevent destruction of evidence while seeking a warrant." Id. at 30.

The Court does find though, that some case-specific exceptions may still justify a warrantless search of a particular phone. "One well-recognized exception applies when ' "the exigencies of the situation" make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.'"Id. at 48 (citing Kentucky v. King, 563 U. S., at ___, 131 S. Ct. 1849, 1856, 179 L. Ed. 2d 865, 874 ) (quoting Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U. S. 385, 394, 98 S. Ct. 2408, 57 L. Ed. 2d 290 (1978))."Such exigencies could include the need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence in individual cases, to pursue a fleeing suspect, and to assist persons who are seriously injured or are threatened with imminent injury." Id. at 48.

Finally, the Court holds "not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest." U.S. LEXIS 4497 at 47. "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." Id. at 51. "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." Id. The Court concluded by answering the following question. "What police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest" ... "get a warrant." Id.

Fred C. Crosby, partner with Pomerantz & Crosby Co. L.P.A., has worked both as a city prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. He reacted favorably to the court's decision. "It's good to see the Supreme Court is keeping up with technology. Defense lawyers have continually argued that police needed a warrant to review the contents of defendants' cell phones. Today's cell phones are not like yesterday's phones. We carry our whole lives in the storage of these cell phones. This is a great decision, one that is long overdue. Hooray for the Supreme Court, finally recognizing the rebirth of the Fourth Amendment."