The United States Supreme Court just released its decision in Riley v. California that a search warrant is needed to look at the contents of a cell phone during an arrest. The landmark unanimous decision by the Supreme Court affects the realm of defense law by broadening the protections offered by the Fourth Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment provides: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” However, a warrantless search is reasonable only if it falls within a specific exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The exception at issue in the Riley case was a warrantless search conducted incident to a lawful arrest.
In Riley, the petitioner was stopped for a traffic violation. During his arrest, police officers searched his cell phone without obtaining a warrant, and discovered evidence tying him to another crime. Riley was later convicted of that crime in a criminal defense case based on evidence discovered on his cell phone.
The Court in Riley stated, “Cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos. This has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phones capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. Third, data on the phone can date back for years. In addition, an element of pervasiveness characterizes cell phones but not physical records. A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today 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.” Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 15-22
The Court’s decision in Riley is a welcomed change from the seemingly continuous narrowing of the Fourth Amendment protections, especially in the case of criminal defense. The fact that the decision was unanimous gives me hope that Fourth Amendment arguments don’t always fall on deaf ears.