Supreme Court Rules That Police May Not Search Cell Phones Without A Warrant

by Nossaman LLP

One of the fundamental liberties protected by the Bill of Rights is freedom from unreasonable searches.  The Fourth Amendment reflects the concern that “We the People” should not be subjected to intrusive searches of our persons, homes, and personal effects, absent reason.  This protection prevents police from unreasonably subjecting the people they are sworn to serve and protect to invasive searches and protects our dignity and privacy.

In Riley v. California (June 25, 2014, No. 13-132) 573 U.S. ___ (2014), the Supreme Court considered a pair of cases to address the common question of “whether the police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.”  Chief Justice John Roberts, in delivering the unanimous opinion of the Court, opined that “[t]he 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.”

The first case, Riley v. California, No. 13-132, followed the arrest of the petitioner David Riley for driving on an expired auto registration.  A search of Riley’s car turned up several guns.  After searching Riley’s cell phone, the police linked him to a shooting, which resulted in his conviction for attempted murder.

The second case, United States v. Wurie, No. 13-212, resulted from the arrest of the respondent, Brima Wurie for suspicion of drug dealing.  During Wurie’s arrest, one of the two cell phones taken from his person rang repeatedly from a caller identified as “my house.”  The police accessed the phone’s call log to get the number for the “my house” contact and used that phone number to get Wurie’s apartment address.  A search of Wurie’s apartment, for which the police were granted a search warrant, turned up drugs, paraphernalia, a firearm, ammunition, and cash.

In both cases, the defendants moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the searches of their cell phones but were denied.  The cases took separate turns during the appeals process: in Riley’s appeal the California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision.  In Wurie’s appeal the First Circuit reversed the denial of his motion and vacated his conviction for possession with the intent to distribute and possession of a firearm as a felon.

Chief Justice Robert’s opinion held that the police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.  The Court noted that the two primary concerns justifying searches incident to arrest are: the safety of the arresting officers and preventing the destruction of evidence, but those could not justify searches of the data on an arrestee’s cell phone.  Police may examine the physical components of a cell phone to make sure that no concealed weapons, such as razor blades, present a threat to their safety.  However, police may not access the data on a cell phone without a warrant.

Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion recognized the pervasiveness of cell phones and the many different types, as well as the massive quantity, of information that are frequently stored on cell phones.  The Chief Justice quipped that cell phones are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”  This rationale led the Court to dismiss the United States’ argument that searches of data stored on a cell phone is “materially indistinguishable” from searches of other types of personal items carried by an arrestee, such as a billfold or address book, as akin to saying that “a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.”

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, opining his uncertainty that the established rule that searches incident to arrest are permitted without a warrant is based, whether exclusively or primarily, on the need to protect the safety of arresting officers and the need to prevent the destruction of evidence.  His  concurrence also emphasized his opinion that he would reconsider the issue presented by the two appeals if Congress or state legislatures enacted legislation drawing “reasonable distinctions based on categories of information or perhaps other variables.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California was highly anticipated and answered a question of law affecting a great deal of people.  However, the decision does not answer all Fourth Amendment questions related to mobile devices.  One lingering question, sure to reach the Supreme Court in time, is whether law enforcement agencies must get a warrant to track a suspect’s location by using data transmitted via cell phone towers.  So far, the Eleventh Circuit and the Fifth Circuit have disagreed on that issue and the Supreme Court will inevitably have to resolve the split.


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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