A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

Scotus plazaBy Burt Rose

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The SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES  has ruled in the cases ofDAVID LEON RILEY, PETITIONER v. CALIFORNIA, 2014 WL 2864483, Nos. 13–132 and No. 13–212, United States v. Wurie, affirming the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, 728 F. 3d 1 (June 25, 2014). CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court. There were no dissents.

The issue before the Court was whether the police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.

 

In No. 13–132, petitioner Riley was stopped for a traffic violation, which eventually led to his arrest on weapons charges. An officer searching Riley incident to the arrest seized a cell phone from Riley’s pants pocket. The officer accessed information on the phone and noticed the repeated use of a term associated with a street gang. At the police station two hours later, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the phone’s digital contents and the State eventually charged Riley in connection with a gang shooting. Riley moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone but the trial court denied the motion, Riley was convicted and the California Court of Appeal affirmed.

 

In No. 13–212, Wurie was arrested after police observed him participate in an apparent drug sale. At the police station, the officers seized a cell phone from Wurie’s person and noticed that the phone was receiving multiple calls from a source identified as “my house” on its external screen. The officers opened the phone, accessed its call log, determined the number associated with the “my house” label, and traced that number to what they suspected was Wurie’s apartment. They secured a search warrant and found drugs, a firearm and ammunition, and cash in the ensuing search. Wurie was then charged with drug and firearm offenses. He moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of the apartment. The District Court denied the motion, and Wurie was convicted. The First Circuit reversed the denial of the motion to suppress and vacated the relevant convictions.

 

The Supreme Court ruled that the police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.

 

Officers may examine a cell phone’s physical aspects to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, but the data on the phone can endanger no one. To the extent that a search of cell phone data might warn officers of an impending danger, e.g., that the arrestee’s confederates are headed to the scene, such a concern is better addressed through consideration of case-specific exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as exigent circumstances. A conclusion that inspecting the contents of an arrestee’s pockets works no substantial additional intrusion on privacy beyond the arrest itself may make sense as applied to physical items, but more substantial privacy interests are at stake when digital data is involved. The Chief Justice noted that many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives. The scope of the privacy interests at stake is further complicated by the fact that the data viewed on many modern cell phones may in fact be stored on a remote server; thus, a search may extend well beyond papers and effects in the physical proximity of an arrestee.

 

The Court’s holding is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is that a warrant is generally required before a search. Although the search incident to arrest exception will not apply to cell phones, “the continued availability of the exigent circumstances exception may give law enforcement a justification for a warrantless search in particular cases.”

 

The Chief Justice concluded with the following language:

 

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life”. 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 Founders fought. 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.

 

 

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