In a unanimous ruling the Supreme Court decided, “The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.”
The case of Riley v. California is a consolidated case. For the Plaintiff David Leon Riley, this case began when he was stopped for a traffic violation that eventually led to weapons charges. While searching Riley, a police officer seized Riley’s cell phone. Riley was faced charges related to a shooting that occurred weeks earlier based on photos and video the police officer found on his phone. The trial court denied Riley’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained from his phone and he was convicted. The trial court’s ruling on the motion to suppress was affirmed by The California court of Appeals.
This case began for Brima Wurie when he was arrested in Boston for participating in a drug sale. The police seized his phone after they arrived at the police station. That’s when they noticed the phone was receiving several calls from a source “my house”. Police officers traced that phone number to what they suspected was Wurie’s apartment. That is when the police got a search warrant that lead to their discovery of drugs, a firearm and ammunition. As a result, Wurie faced drug and firearms charges. Like Riley, Wurie filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained because of the search warrant. The trial court denied the motion and Wurie was convicted.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote the decision in which he stated:
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.
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.
This is a huge victory for digital privacy because the ruling was unanimous and the court recognized cell phones as distinct from other objects an individual may have on their person.
Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day. Now it is the person who is not carrying a cell phone, with all that it contains, who is the exception.
The ruling also outlines exceptions to the general rule that law enforcement needs a warrant to search a cell phone. Data on the phone cannot be used to either harm an arresting officer or assist in the arrested person’s escape. Officers can search the physical phone, but not the data, if the phone contains a weapon. The exception also applies if police are afraid that a suspect will delete incriminating evidence from the phone.
In a 6-3 ruling the Supreme Court also handed broadcast television a victory when it ruled against Aero, a company that makes it possible for people to watch television over the internet. At issue in American Broadcasting Cos., Inc, v. Areo Inc. was whether a Federal law that regulates the transmission of television programs applies to Aero. At stake was Aero’s very existence vs. the legal foundation on which cable and satellite services must pay copyright fees to carry network programs.
Image: Mother Jones