Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two cases – Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie (collectively “Riley”) – that police may not search a person’s cell phone just because the phone is in the person’s possession when he or she is arrested. Instead, the police must either get a warrant to search or else rely on case-specific facts giving rise to individualized suspicion that evidence on the cell phone will be destroyed before a warrant can be obtained. The Riley decision was virtually unanimous, with Justice Alito joining only in part.
After David Riley was arrested in California for a firearms offense, police searched his pockets and found a smartphone. Searches of the contents of the phone disclosed: that Riley had used the term “CK,” short for “Crip Killer,” suggesting that he was a member of the Bloods street gang; videos in which unknown persons used the word “Blood”; and a photo of Riley in front of a car involved in a recent shooting. This evidence was introduced at trial against Riley in California state court to prove his involvement in the shooting and his gang membership.
In a separate case, Brima Wurie was arrested on drug charges in Massachusetts, and police seized a flip phone from him. Police noticed numerous phone calls coming from a contact identified as “My House.” Police searched the phone for the phone number of the “My House” contact, then located the address associated with that number using an online directory. Police then secured a warrant for that address and seized drugs, cash, and a firearm, all of which were introduced at his federal trial on drug and gun charges.
Riley and Wurie each conceded that police had authority to seize their phones pursuant to the “search incident to arrest” (SIA) doctrine, which permits police, without a warrant, to search the person of an arrestee and seize whatever they find. They argued, however, that police went beyond that authority by searching the contents of their phones without a warrant.
The Court agreed. The Court distinguished a 1973 case, U.S. v. Robinson, in which it had upheld as an SIA the search of a cigarette pack obtained from an arrestee. In Robinson, the Court had justified the SIA rule on two grounds: preventing the arrestee from accessing an item that could be used to injure the officer or effect an escape, and preventing him from accessing evidence that could be concealed or destroyed. In Riley, the Court determined that inthe context of a cell phone, the first justification is obviously inapplicable. And the government had shown nothing beyond speculation that searching a cell phone immediately was necessary to avoid having its contents encrypted or remotely wiped.
On the privacy side of the ledger, the Court determined that digital evidence is of a completely different character than the non-digital evidence found in the cigarette pack in Robinson. While a limited number of personal items might be carried in a person’s pockets or purse, cell phones (particularly smartphones) carry a virtually limitless number of items that are quite private in nature: potentially thousands of e-mails and phone and text messages, a veritable music and video library, a daily calendar going back years, GPS location information, an internet browsing history, and dozens of apps. Each of these might reveal very personal information about the arrestee. And the Court said that this was true not only of Riley’s smartphone but also of Wurie’s flip phone. In short, the quantity and quality of information contained on a cell phone is different from non-digital evidence that might be found on an arrestee’s person in the same way that “a ride on horseback is [different] from a flight to the moon.”
In some cases, the Court acknowledged, police will have sufficient suspicion both that a cell phone contains evidence of a crime and that the evidence might be destroyed before a warrant can be obtained. In those cases, the police will be able to search without a warrant, but only if they can point to particular facts and circumstances indicating a need to search imminently. Otherwise, they will have to convince a judge to issue a warrant based on probable cause that the cell phone contains evidence of a crime.
Riley has the potential to be a very significant case. Not only does the ruling have the immediate effect of barring searches of cell phones, and presumably other computer devices, incident to arrest, but it also has broader implications. For the first time, the Court has acknowledged and coherently articulated that digital data are different than non-digital data, not only in degree but in kind. In the years to come, Riley will likely be viewed as the case that brought the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century.
Professor of Law
NKU Chase College of Law
518 Nunn Hall
Highland Heights, KY 41099