Riley v. California: Cell Phone Searches Prohibited

Police Must Get a Warrant to Search a Cell PhoneThe U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late June that the police must get a warrant before searching the cell phone of a person who has been arrested. This is a significant decision that greatly expands protection for the private information you keep on cell phones and other electronic devices.

Facts of the RulingThis ruling actually dealt with two cases that involved police searches of cell phones. One was Riley v. California, which began with a 2009 traffic stop of David Riley for an expired registration. After seeing guns in his vehicle, police searched through his cell phone and found information relating to a gang. Evidence pertaining a shooting was found on a second search of the phone’s contents. This led to Riley being charged with and convicted of attempted murder and being given a 15 year prison sentence. The second case involved in this ruling concerned a police search of a cell phone in Boston. In that instance, however, a lower federal court said that the evidence police got from the phone could not be used. It was these conflicting lower court rulings that prompted the Supreme Court to take up the case and issue a decision so one set of guidelines could be used across the country.

Privacy of Information on a Cell PhoneThe United States Justice Department argued that the data on a cell phone should be treated the same as information in a person’s wallet or purse and should be subject to the rules that allow police to conduct warrantless searches during arrests. The justification for these warrantless searches has been that it is necessary to keep suspects from destroying evidence and to protect officers from weapons that might be hidden in clothing or in a purse.

The Court, however, unanimously determined that the quantity of information on modern cell phones is so personal and vast that it requires protection from the eyes of government officials. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, stated that it is even imprecise to call the devices cell phones since they are address books, cameras, voice recorders, diaries, video players, maps, and more. Roberts was clear and direct in stating the reasons for the Court’s decision: “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life’ . . . . 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.”  

Implications for People Who are ArrestedWhile a major victory for privacy and the rights of defendants, this ruling does not mean that your cell phone can never be searched. Instead, what the Court ruled was that the police must first get a warrant. That means that they can still collect the phone as a piece of evidence and take steps to make sure that the information on the phone does not go away. This might mean turning off the device, taking out the battery, and even wrapping it aluminum to keep someone from sending a command to wipe the data clean. (For example, an iPhone owner can use Find My iPhone to do this.)

So the key issues to keep in mind are that the police during an arrest are prohibited from compelling you to give them a passcode that would give them access to your digital information. If an officer attempts to do this, politely decline to provide the information. It also means that the phone might be taken as evidence and subject to a search if a warrant is obtained from a judge. It appears that all of these principles also apply to other digital devices like tablets and laptop computers.

All of this highlights the necessity of hiring a qualified and experienced defense attorney who can step in and protect your privacy rights and not allow law enforcement improper access to your personal information. In these sorts of cases in particular, it’s important to get legal representation quickly so the police are compelled to follow the rules the Supreme Court has articulated and your interests are protected.