In Riley v. California, the US Supreme Court reached a unanimous decision concerning cellphone privacy cases, bringing the Fourth Amendment into the digital age. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the Opinion outlining a simple truth: “Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.” Following the text of the 4th Amendment, the Opinion reinforces the primary ideology to “get a warrant” before searching a cell phone seized after an arrest.
Riley involves two cases, consolidated for the opinion.
In the first case, Riley was stopped for a traffic violation, which eventually led to his arrest on weapons charges. An officer searching Riley incident to the arrest seized a cell phone from Riley’s pants pocket. The officer accessed information on the phone and noticed the repeated use of a term associated with a street gang. At the police station two hours later, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the phone’s digital contents. Based in part on photographs and videos that the detective found, the State charged Riley in connection with a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier and sought an enhanced sentence based on Riley’s gang membership. Riley moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone.
In the second case, Wurie was arrested after police observed him participate in an apparent drug sale. At the police station, the officers seized a cell phone from Wurie’s person and noticed that the phone was receiving multiple calls from a source identified as “my house” on its external screen. The officers opened the phone, accessed its call log, determined the number associated with the “my house” label, and traced that number to what they suspected was Wurie’s apartment. They secured a search warrant and found drugs, a firearm and ammunition, and cash in the ensuing search. Wurie was then charged with drug and firearm offenses. He moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of the apartment.
Riley, id. at 1. Based on these facts, along with a strong 4th Amendment analysis, the US Supreme Court held the police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. The state of California attempted to argue that exigencies existed allowing officers to search the phones without obtaining a warrant in the first place or that officers could search the phone incident to the arrest.
The Supreme Court rejected those arguments stating
Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse. A conclusion that inspecting the contents of an arrestee’s pockets works no substantial additional intrusion on privacy beyond the arrest itself may make sense as applied to physical items, but any extension of that reasoning to digital data has to rest on its own bottom. …
Cell phones [have the] capacity with the ability to store many different types of information: Even the most basic phones that sell for less than $20 might hold photographs, picture messages, text messages, Internet browsing history, a calendar, a thousand-entry phone book, and so on. …
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. …
Riley at. 14-16.
When debating the exigency of circumstances exception to the warrant requirement, the Supreme Court elaborated “The critical point is that, unlike the search incident to arrest exception, the exigent circumstances exception requires a court to examine whether an emergency justified a warrantless search in each particular case.” Riley at 19.