Their View: United States Supreme Court Rules Unanimously That Cell Phone Searches Require a Warrant in Riley v. California

By The West Virginia Record | Jul 24, 2014


In a victory for cell phone users in West Virginia and elsewhere, the United States Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that police cannot search information on a cell phone without first obtaining a warrant.

In the case Riley v. California, David Riley was stopped by a police officer for driving his car with expired registration tags. During the stop, the police officer also learned that Riley was driving on a suspended license. He impounded Riley's car in accordance with department policy, and another police department conducted an inventory search. Two handguns were found under the car's hood, and Riley was then arrested for possession of concealed and loaded firearms. An officer then searched Riley in connection with the arrest and seized a "smart" cell phone from his pocket. The officer then used the phone to access information and noticed that some words in text messages or on the contacts list were preceded by "CK." The officer had already found evidence, through the search, that Riley was part of the "Bloods" street gang, and concluded that CK stood for "Crip Killers," slang for members of his gang.

Two hours after the arrest, a detective who specialized in gangs examined the information on the phone further. He knew that gang members often took videos or pictures of themselves with guns, and so he looked for evidence. He instead found a picture of Riley standing before what looked like a car that had been involved in a shooting a few weeks prior. Riley was eventually charged in connection with the shooting. At trial, Riley tried to suppress the evidence obtained from his cell phone, arguing that the warrantless search violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court rejected his argument, and Riley was convicted. He then appealed to the California Court of Appeal, which upheld the trial court's decision, and then petitioned the California Supreme Court, only to be denied. Riley finally petitioned the United States Supreme Court.

In its hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, Riley's case was joined with that of Brima Wurie in Massachusetts, who had two cell phones seized from her person while she was at the police station on suspicion of selling drugs. In that case, the police searched the phones and used the information to execute a search warrant of her home, where they found 215 grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, firearms, and cash. Wurie was charged and later convicted on the basis of this evidence.

In the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous ruling, Chief Justice Roberts stated that cell phones differed "in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee's person." For one thing, cell phones contained very intimate details of the users' lives and could just as easily be called cameras, Rolodexes, diaries, libraries, and more. Cell phones also had the capacity to store "millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos." That meant that a warrant, stating the specific parameters of the search, was necessary for searching cell phones. A cell phone was not just another object found during a routine search incidental to arrest.

The Riley ruling is encouraging for those who value their privacy, and it shows that the U.S. Supreme Court is willing to extend Fourth Amendment protections to the digital age.

The Wolfe Law Firm is an Elkins personal injury firm founded by Dorwin Wolfe. This editorial appeared on the firm’s blog.

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