Supreme Court Limits Police Cell Phone Searches
In a rare unanimous ruling being hailed as a victory for privacy rights, the United States Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that cell phones generally cannot be searched by police during arrests.
The justices ruled 9-0 in Riley v. California that police must generally obtain a warrant before searching the cell phones of people they arrest.
Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts said that cell phones “hold for many Americans the privacies of life” and 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.”
“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 [Founding Fathers] fought,” added Roberts, stating one of the main motivators of the American Revolution was outrage over “general warrants” which “allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.”
Roberts summarized succinctly: “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.”
In the case at hand, motorist David Leon Riley was stopped by San Diego police in 2009 due to an expired vehicle registration. Officers found Riley’s driver’s license was suspended and, after a search, found four guns under the hood of his car. An examination of Riley’s cell phone led police to believe he was involved in a gang, and a photo stored on his phone linked him to a vehicle police claim was used to flee the scene of an earlier shooting.
As a result of the cell phone search, Riley was indicted on murder and other charges, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. A lower court affirmed the police right to search his phone.
Privacy rights advocates hailed the ruling.
“The decision brings the Fourth Amendment into the digital age,” Jeffrey Fisher, a professor at Stanford Law School who argued for the defendant in the case, told the Washington Post. “The core of the decision is that digital information is different. It triggers privacy concerns far more profound than ordinary physical objects.”
Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the digital privacy rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the decision “huge for digital privacy.”
“The Court recognized that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cellphones requires heightened privacy protection, and cannot be searched at a police officer’s whim,” said Fakhoury.