Supreme Court Offers Cell Phones Additional Privacy Protection

Filed under: Criminal Law, News by Contributor @ June 26, 2014

In Riley v. California, 537 U.S. __ (2014), a surprisingly unanimous 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court added additional privacy protection to American’s cell phones.  Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts held that police need a warrant to search the cell phone of someone who is under arrest.  This result greatly pleased privacy activists, who had argued that cell phones deserved protection due to the great variety and quantity of information that they can possess.

Riley was decided in conjunction with another case, United States v. Wurie.  In Riley, the defendant had been stopped for a traffic violation.  After being stopped, the police officer accessed his phone and saw a term associated with a gang.  This eventually led to Riley’s arrest for a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier.  Riley’s motion to suppress the evidence was denied and he was convicted, leading to this appeal.  In Wurie, the defendant’s phone was seized at the police station after he had been arrested for allegedly participating in a drug sale.  The police used the call log to find Wurie’s apartment, which they obtained a warrant to search, finding drugs and a gun.  Wurie was convicted for the possession of drugs and the firearm.  Both of these convictions were overturned with this ruling.

This case was based upon the privacy protection given by the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.  As the Chief Justice noted “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.”  The Court acknowledged that this protection will hurt law enforcement officers’ ability to combat crime; yet the Court recognized that searching one’s cell phone can often be more intrusive than searching one’s home, due to the large amount of data that is generally contained in a cell phone.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion, arguing first that a police officer’s ability to search someone after arrest is not necessarily based on the Fourth Amendment.  Justice Alito wrote that it “is a mistake” to allow the ideas of officer safety and preservation of evidence be the only reasons to allow a warrantless search incident to arrest.  Second, Justice Alito called upon Congress and the state legislatures to create “reasonable distinctions” pertaining to what may and may not be searched by police officers.

This is a decision that will surely change the way law enforcement officers operate throughout the United States.  To speak with one of our attorneys about how this could affect you, please contact Fairlie & Lippy today.

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