A Victory for Personal Information Privacy


In a stunning victory for Fourth Amendment rights and personal information privacy generally, the United States Supreme Court in Riley v California has held that police may not search an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant. This unanimous decision suggests that both the liberal and the conservative wings of the Supreme Court agree that personal information on cell phones (and presumably other mobile devices) is protected under the Fourth Amendment.

The decision arose from two cases—one from California and one from Massachusetts—that raised the common question of whether police may conduct a warrantless search of digital information on a cell phone.

In the California case, David Riley was convicted of attempted murder and assault with a semi-automatic firearm in the San Diego County Superior Court. Local police had stopped him because the registration on his car had expired, but the police also noticed he was driving with a suspended driver’s license. They arrested him and impounded and searched his vehicle under San Diego Police Department policy.

In the search, they found a cell phone containing information that connected him with the shooting, for which he was then convicted. The Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction, holding that when an officer is justified in impounding a vehicle, a warrantless inventory search under a standardized procedure is constitutionally reasonable.

On appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court, Riley contended that, although the search and seizure of the cell phone may have been constitutional, the scope of the search didn’t extend to retrieving information unrelated to the grounds for the arrest and impoundment. In reversing and remanding, the Supreme Court not only agreed with Riley’s contentions but expanded its holding to create “clear guidance” that the police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. 2014 US Lexis 4497, *8.

The Court declined to apply any of the warrantless search exceptions to this case and used a balancing test, attempting to determine, on the one hand, the degree to which a cell phone search “intrudes on an individual’s privacy, and, on the other hand, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.” It concluded that “more substantial privacy interests are at stake when digital data is involved” in a cell phone search than merely inspecting the contents of an arrestee’s pockets, as is permitted under a warrantless search incident to arrest. The Court also noted that, although the search incident to arrest exception no longer applies to cell phones, the exigent circumstances search exception may still apply to justify a warrantless search.

Learn more about privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment in CEB’s Privacy Compliance and Litigation in California, chap 2. On Fourth Amendment search and seizure law, turn to CEB’s “crim law bible,” California Criminal Law Procedure and Practice, chap 16.

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© The Regents of the University of California, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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