Will cops still get access to cell phone data post arrest? You bet. Today’s Supreme Court decision just means they need to get permission from a judge before they start searching who you have been texting. And odds are very good, that permission will be granted.
In a unanimous decision authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the United States Supreme Court held that law enforcement officers may not conduct warrantlesssearches of cell phones that are seized incident to an arrest. But just because police cannot immediately search mobile phones, doesn’t mean they cannot immediately seize them in connection with an arrest. Indeed, the benefit of today’s decision by our country’s highest court may be limited to the two defendants who brought the case (and of course any similarly situated defendants).
The named defendant in Riley v California is David Riley. After Riley was stopped for a traffic violation, he was arrested and the police officer seized his cell phone incident to that arrest. When the officer accessed the data on the phone (without a search warrant), he noticed the repeated use of an identifier associated with the Bloods street gang. Later, a detective reviewed the cell phone records and noticed gang-related content, including a photo of Riley standing in front of a car that was used in a shooting weeks earlier. Riley was convicted of multiple crimes related to that shooting and received a sentence of 15 years to life.
The second case resolved today involved Brima Wurie, who had been arrested in connection with a drug sale. After Wurie’s arrest, police took him to the police station where officers confiscated his flip phone. A few minutes later, Wurie’s phone showed an incoming call from “my house.” The officers opened the phone, accessed the call log to determine the number of the incoming call, and then traced the number back to Wurie’s apartment, which they secured. After obtaining a search warrant, the officers searched the apartment and seized drugs, a gun, ammunition, and cash. At trial, Wurie was convicted on three drug-related counts and sentenced to more than twenty years in prison.
The key here to note is that in neither case did law enforcement obtain prior permission to search the cell phones belonging to Riley and Wurie. The narrow question presented to the Court therefore was whether it is permissible for law enforcement to search cell phone data incident to an arrest where no court has authorized such a search. In holding that such a search violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, the Court considered but rejected as not relevant prior cases where so-called “warrantless” searches passed constitutional muster. For example,
· In Chimel v. California, the Court recognized that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless searches of the arrestee and areas within his immediate control if necessary to protect officer safety or to preserve evidence.
· In Arizona v. Gant, the Court held that officers may search a car incident to arrest if the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment or if the officer reasonably believes evidence of the crime of arrest may be found.
Because there were no such exigent circumstances present in Riley or Wurie’s arrest, the Court concluded that the need for cell phone data searches does not outweigh the corresponding intrusion on individual privacy, and thus a warrant was required. This of course is the right result. Digital cell phone data does not, by itself, of course, threaten officer safety. And a warrantless search of cell phone data is not necessary to preserve evidence. The Court recognized an individual’s privacy interest in digital cell phone data is considerable: cell phones have immense storage capacity, collect many types of records in one place, and often contain years’ worth of data.
In this regard, today’s decision is a victory for privacy rights. Law enforcement officers will not be permitted to conduct warrantless searches of cell phones for digital evidence. But if you are arrested, don’t assume law enforcement will let you keep your phone. Today’s decision may not allow for a warrantless search of your phone, but there is nothing prohibiting law enforcement from securing a phone post-arrest and seeking permission from a court to search it. And the chances that a court will grant such a request are close to 100%.