U.S. Supreme Court Cell Phone Privacy Decision Deserves Employer Attention

by Ballard Spahr LLP
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In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week in Riley v. California that police generally may not conduct a warrantless search of digital data stored on the cell phone of someone who has been arrested. The ruling likely will have implications beyond the context of arrest-related searches, and it should serve as a reminder to employers that unfettered access to data on mobile devices used by their employees will likely infringe upon employees’ reasonable privacy expectations, regardless of whether such devices are company-provided.

The question before the Court was whether police searches of digital data stored on the cell phones of individuals who had been arrested were reasonable searches “incident to a lawful arrest” and therefore excepted from the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The Court heard oral argument in April of this year in two cases on the issue, but issued a single opinion.

In the first case, Riley v. California, Petitioner David Riley was arrested on weapons charges; a police officer searched Mr. Riley and seized a smartphone from his pocket.

The smartphone contained photographs and videos, which officers used to connect and charge Mr. Riley with an earlier shooting. In the second case, United States v. Wurie, Respondent Brima Wurie was arrested after he was observed making an apparent drug sale; during a search of his person, officers seized two cell phones, including a flip phone containing substantial call log data. Officers used this data to locate Mr. Wurie’s home, where, after executing a search warrant, they found evidence sufficient to charge him with drug and weapons offenses.

A substantial portion of the Court’s opinion is devoted to discussing how modern cell phones—typically, smartphones—differ from physical objects. The Court discussed modern cell phones’ capacity to store large amounts of private data over long time periods, in the form of text, pictures, videos, metadata, mobile application data, and other data. Such data, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., wrote, may be used to reconstruct “[t]he sum of an individual’s private life.”

A cell phone search, the Court reasoned, therefore “implicates substantially greater individual privacy interests than a brief physical search.” The Court found that in the context of modern cell phones, individual privacy interests generally outweigh the government’s interest in safety and preservation of evidence.

The Riley decision represents a victory for advocates of individual privacy rights, and signals ­­­­the need to carefully consider the bounds for accessing private data in a digital age. In light of the decision, employers that permit the use of employee-owned devices for work purposes—including cell phones, tablets, and laptops—should make sure they have a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or mobile device policy in place that is understandable and carefully calibrated to strike a balance between individual privacy interests and the employer’s interests.

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