The Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Amendment’s “right of the people to be secure in their persons,houses,papers and effects” in a unanimous decision that determined police officers need a warrant before gaining access to information from an arrested person’s cell phone.
The court resolved the issue stemming from two cases: Riley v. California and United States v. Brima Wurie. Riley’s lawyer,Jeffery L. Fisher,said he was excited about the result of the case because it showed the Supreme Court recognized the need to protect the privacy of digital information.
“It’s bringing the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century,” Fisher said.
Riley and Wurie were both searched when they were arrested,on gang violence and drug charges.
Both were carrying cell phones. Police searched the phones,found evidence of possible crimes and used that evidence for further searches and in court. Both were convicted and served time in prison.
In a series of decisions beginning in 1914,courts have ruled that this kind of warrantless search is lawful to remove any weapons a person could use to harm an officer or to find evidence that person might attempt to destroy.
The Supreme Court’s decision determines how the doctrine of searches that occur at the time of an arrest applies to cell phones.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the opinion that,since digital data stored in a cell phone can’t be used as a weapon or to help an arrestee escape,it is unnecessary to search it without a warrant. Officers can still look at a phone’s physical aspects to make sure it can’t be used as a weapon.
The United States and California argued that protecting evidence within the phones was important,because an arrestee could erase data,a third party could remote-wipe the information or the phone could lock and encrypt the data. Roberts wrote that these issues aren’t prevalent and that law enforcement has techniques to prevent them. He also wrote that the ability to conduct a warrantless search probably wouldn’t make a difference to officers in the field.
“The need to effect the arrest,secure the scene,and tend to other pressing matters means that law enforcement officers may well not be able to turn their attention to a cell phone right away,” Roberts wrote.
Cell phones are different from other objects that an arrestee might have because they have a large range of functions and a large storage capacity. Roberts wrote that searching a phone is a greater privacy concern than just looking into a physical object such as a wallet.
“Most people cannot lug around every piece of mail they have received for the past several months,every picture they have taken,or every book or article they have read – nor would they have any reason to do so,” Roberts wrote.
The data from a cell phone could be used to reconstruct a person’s private life and provide more information than “the most exhaustive search of a house,” Roberts wrote.
The decision may affect law enforcement’s ability to combat crime because everyone has access to a cell phone,including criminals.
“Privacy comes at a cost,” Roberts wrote.
Because the information on those phones could prove incriminating,police officers will still be able to search them – they’ll just need a warrant except in exceptional circumstances. Technology makes this process even easier,as officers can email a judge to get a warrant,sometimes within 15 minutes.
“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,” Roberts said. “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.”
Reach Reporter Kate Winkle at [email protected] or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.