This case, decided on June 25, 2014 together with another entitled US v. Wurie, looked at whether police may, without a warrant, poke through digital information on a cell phone when someone is arrested during a traffic stop. At first blush, the Court appears to state that such a warrantless search is not permitted. But a closer examination of the Courtʼs ruling should leave any appellate attorney wary of unequivocal reliance upon this decision.
Riley was stopped for expired registration tags. Upon searching Rileyʼs person, the police seized a cell phone from his pocket. On the phone they found language relating to an area street gang. Riley was then arrested. Several hours later, a detective further examined the contents of the phone, and found information about a shooting. Riley was charged in connection with the shooting, and the state sought an enhanced sentence, based upon his purported gang membership. Riley moved to suppress information obtained from the cell phone. The trial court ruled against him, and the California Court of Appeal agreed, both essentially saying that the information obtained from the cell phone was permissible. The case then went to the United States Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court looked at exceptions to the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which generally prohibits warrantless searches. In previous cases, the Supreme Court has allowed warrantless searches of the area under a potential arresteeʼs control to protect law enforcement from harm, to preserve evidence, or where the police believe evidence might be found.
With Riley, the Court believed that this increased intrusion into a personʼs privacy — obtaining data from a smart phone — isnʼt justified by legitimate government interests. The data on a cell phone is not a weapon. Moreover, police can guard against the possibility of “remote wiping” of data by simply turning the phone off or removing the battery. Finally, when searching a phone, police may be looking at massive amounts of data from various sources, over many years, and even stored on remote servers where the reach of government would be more intrusive into oneʼs privacy. Indeed, the Court noted that smart phones are so ubiquitous that a visitor from Mars might think they were part of the human anatomy.
While it seems as if this protects digital data on a cell phone from a search without a warrant, the Court left open a loophole. If “exigent circumstances” justify, a search of data on a smart cell phone might be permissible without a warrant. Examples given were imminent destruction of evidence, pursuing fleeing suspects, or assisting those injured or threatened with harm.
So how safe is your cell phone from warrantless search? The prudent trial or appellate lawyer will understand that law enforcement, and thereafter prosecutors, may now claim exigent circumstances as the basis for seizing and examining a smartphone. One of the justices in a concurring opinion noted that the technology of the 21st century is certainly not anything contemplated by the founders. New paradigms are needed to deal with these situations, which is the purview of the legislative branch.
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