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Search and Seizure of Cell Phones; The ramifications of Riley v. California

As the world progresses further into the Information Age, human ingenuity and invention continues to bring us significant technological advances in the fields of electronic communication and data storage, and many Americans find themselves relying more and more on this technology as part of the operation of their day-to-day lives. Everything from looking up a recipe for dinner to conducting online banking transactions can be accomplished with the push of a few buttons on a person’s mobile phone or tablet. The future will doubtlessly continue to bring us additional advances in the scope and ability of this technology.

Many Americans believe privacy is a critical component to the freedoms that they enjoy on a daily basis, and issues pertaining to the limits of government intrusion into the electronic frontier are at the forefront of our current political debates, particularly since details of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program became matters of public knowledge. One of the core protections against government intrusion into the privacy of Americans is the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the government, and generally requires a warrant issued upon a finding of probable cause by a neutral magistrate prior to the search of a person, his or her home, papers, or effects.

The requirement that law enforcement obtain a warrant has many exceptions, or, at least, has been found to be inherently reasonable in certain circumstances. One of those circumstances is when law enforcement conducts a search of an arrestee pursuant to a lawful arrest. Generally, under these circumstances, law enforcement officers are able to conduct a search of the arrestee’s person to check for weapons and prevent evidence from being destroyed. A fairly long history of United States Supreme Court, and lower court, decisions has held that such a search is inherently reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and no warrant or further justification is required. One of the initial cases establishing this doctrine involved the search of a crumpled up cigarette pack in a man’s pocket at the time of arrest. Since that time, this rule has been applied to allow law enforcement to seize and examine numerous items found upon the arrestee’s person, such as wallets, photos, letters, etc.

Until recently, the United States Supreme Court had not decided whether the same rationale can be applied to electronic devices held by a person at the time of arrest. Specifically, whether a person’s cellular phone can be searched at the time of arrest, without a warrant, as a matter of course. State Supreme Courts have reached different conclusions when it comes to whether law enforcement must obtain a warrant prior to searching a person’s cellular phone. In 2011, in a case called People v. Diaz, California decided that the general rule applied, and no warrant is required to search a cellular phone held on an arrestee’s person at the time of arrest. In 2013, Florida reached a different conclusion, finding that a cigarette pack is different from a cellular phone, and required law enforcement to obtain a warrant. The impact of these decisions is very broad, as arrestable offenses can be relatively minor, such as violating a seatbelt law, even one which carries a maximum penalty of a $50 fine. In California, a person can be arrested for riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the roadway.

This year, in Riley v. California, the United States Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Florida, overturned People v. Diaz, and held that law enforcement must obtain a warrant prior to searching a cellular phone seized from the person of an arrestee. This decision is not simply a vindication for the individual rights of a person with respect to a cellular phone at the time of arrest, although it surely does vindicate such a right; the broad language of the Court’s decision touches upon the sanctity of a person’s privacy interest in the voluminous amounts of data stored on all such devices. In fact, the Court stated that “The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand” as these are instead multi-purpose devices that “are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.” Such multi-purpose devices ” as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.” Traditionally, a person’s home is the area most guarded by the protections of the Fourth Amendment, and the Court, in reaching its conclusion, acknowledged that it is “’a totally different thing to search a man’s pockets and use against him what they contain, from ransacking his house for everything which may incriminate him.’” In attributing a higher degree of protection to the search of a cellular phone at the time of a person’s arrest, the Court acknowledged that “[i]ndeed, a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house: A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form— unless the phone is.”

The broad and protective language of a person’s privacy interest in their electronic data has caused advocates of privacy from all over the country to applaud the Court’s decision in this case with the utmost fervor. Only time will tell how future courts will apply this Court’s decision to the ever so evolving issues of electronic privacy.