On June 25, 2014, in Riley v. California, a unanimous United States Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment requires that police obtain a warrant prior to searching the digital data found on an arrested suspect’s cell phone. The opinion can be read here.
Generally speaking, a warrantless search is unreasonable and a violation of the Fourth Amendment unless it falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement. At issue in Riley v. California was whether the warrantless search of the digital data of a cell phone is permissible under the long recognized “search incident to arrest” exception to the warrant requirement which generally provides that law enforcement may search an arrestee at the time of his or her arrest.
In a series of decisions, the Supreme Court has explained the bounds of the search incident to arrest exception. In Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), the Supreme Court held that for a warrantless search incident to arrest to comport with the Fourth Amendment, the search must be limited to the area within the arrestee’s immediate control. The Chimel court made clear that the purposes behind the search incident to arrest exception are twofold: 1) the need to protect officer safety; and 2) the need to prevent the destruction of evidence.
The Supreme Court further explained the search incident to arrest exception in United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973). In Robinson, the Court held that physical evidence found on a person during a lawful search incident to arrest could itself be searched pursuant to the doctrine announced in Chimel. Finally, in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), the Court again relied upon Chimel in holding that a search incident to arrest permits searches of a car where the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment, or where it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.
In declining to extend Robinson and Gant to warrantless searches of digital data of an arrestee’s cell phone, the Court found that neither of the unique and narrow purposes (officer safety and preventing the destruction of evidence) is served by allowing the search of digital data on cell phones. As to officer safety, the Court found that digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an officer. Thus, while warrantless physical inspections of a seized phone are permissible to ensure officer safety, such as a search to ensure that a cell phone is not concealing a weapon which may harm an arresting officer, searches of digital content require a search warrant.
With regard to the destruction of evidence, the Court rejected the Government’s argument that, because remote wiping of information may be possible, officers should be allowed to conduct warrantless searches of digital data. The Court found that the Government’s briefing did not indicate that wiping and encryption were pervasive problems and that other techniques and technologies, such as simply turning the phone off or placing in a radio wave proof bag, could combat those problems.
Although finding that the purposes of Chimel were not satisfied, the Court did recognize that in certain rare circumstances the need for officer safety or the prevention of the destruction of evidence would necessitate the searching of a cell phone. However, the Court found that those rare instances would be governed by the “exigent circumstances” exception, not the search incident to a lawful arrest exception.
The Supreme Court also made clear that due to the vast storage capabilities of modern cell phones, greater privacy interests are implicated when addressing the Fourth Amendment’s warrants requirement as applied to the search of digital data. As explained by the Court, “[t]he search incident to arrest exception rests not only on the heightened government interests at stake in a volatile arrest situation, but also on an arrestee’s reduced privacy interests upon being taken into police custody.” Riley, 573 U.S. ___ (2014) slip op. at 15. However, the Court noted:
The fact that an arrestee has diminished privacy interests does not mean that the Fourth Amendment falls out of the picture entirely. Not every search is acceptable solely because a person is in custody. To the contrary, when privacy-related concerns are weighty enough a search may require a warrant, notwithstanding the diminished expectations of privacy of the arrestee.
Id. at 16 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
The Supreme Court also found that the privacy concerns regarding digital data on cell phones was different than those concerning the contents of physical objects. First, the Court found that modern “smart” cell phones allow users to store various distinct types of information that, when searched in combination, would reveal much more information than any one particular record in isolation. Second, the storage capacity of cell phones allows far broader access to information than previously possible. As explained by the Court, “the sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet.” Id. at 18. Finally, the data on cell phones can date back years. Whereas “before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and tended as a general matter to constitute only a narrow intrusion on privacy,” today the search of digital data of seized cell phones would be far more exhaustive, revealing, and intrusive. As a result, greater privacy concerns exist.
Of course, the Court’s decision does not mean that law enforcement is somehow foreclosed from searching cell phones. As explained by the Court:
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. 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. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.
Id. at 28 (internal citations and quotations omitted)(emphasis added).