The U.S. Supreme Court made a sweeping ruling on a piece of technology that is ubiquitous in society but has created new legal issues as its use has become widespread. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in Riley v. California that a police officer cannot search a cell phone’s data after a lawful arrest without a warrant. While this opinion does not shield cell phone data from all warrantless searches, it is an opinion that will greatly affect whether and how digital data will remain private. Please call our toll-free number at (855) 977-1212 to see how one of our attorney members can provide you a FREE CONSULTATION on your Criminal Law issue.

An important distinction needs to be made prior to continuing with describing the Court’s decision in Riley. In this case, the Court only disallowed the police from looking at the data on a cell phone. The police are still able to locate and seize a person’s cell phone at the time of the arrest and are able to disable the phone in order to prevent any destruction of data. The Court’s holding only protects the data accessible by the cell phone and not the device itself.

The Court looked at the type of data that cell phones can carry and determined that the Fourth Amendment would not allow a warrantless search of a cell phone’s data as a result of an arrest. Both the majority and dissenting opinion described the long history of police being able to search after an arrest. Nonetheless, the Court felt that such a search was inappropriate here.  The majority cites Chimel v. California, which is the case upon which the modern law governing searches after an arrest are based. In Chimel, the police arrested a man in his home and then proceeded to search the entire three-bedroom home without obtaining a warrant. When they discovered incriminating evidence against Chimel, they tried to claim that the evidence was admissible according to a 1914 precedent, because the government can conduct a warrantless search as incidental to an arrest. The Supreme Court stated that a warrantless search after an arrest can only be of an arrestee’s person. Moreover, the Court said that warrantless searches incident to an arrest is justified by concerns over officer safety and the defendant destroying evidence.

Here, the Court stated that while there is a longstanding precedent that a police officer can search a person following his/her arrest, the nature of the data in a cell phone is qualitatively different than other items that an officer may find on an arrestee’s person. The Court reviewed the rationale of precedents like Chimel and found that cell phone data is too distinct from other types of information that the police can learn from searching an arrestee’s person. Unlike other items the police may find when they search an arrestee, cell phone data (especially from smartphones) cannot be a threat to officer safety and is it little danger of being destroyed by the person arrested once the phone is seized.  

Furthermore, the amount of data that a cell phone contains far outpaces the amount of other data that can be found on an arrestee’s person. Prior to the existence of cell phones, a person may keep a few photos on his/her person, but now all a person’s photos can be stored on his/her cell phone. Moreover, with smartphones and widespread internet access, a person’s e-mail correspondence, financial data, friend network and various other types of data are fully available on his/her cell phone. The Court felt that the police would invade too deeply into a person’s right to privacy if the police were able to access the amount of data on a cell phone without a warrant.

The Court held that cell phone data cannot be subject to a warrantless search after an arrest, but the Court did not deny the police any opportunity for a warrantless search of the cell phone’s data.  For example, the Court specifically said that the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment may give the police the authority to search an arrested person’s cell phone data.  As more courts review this precedent, the public will learn which exceptions to the Fourth Amendment search clauses will apply to cell phone data.

The Riley holding will have long term effects on not just cell phones, but on all personal electronic devices. Most importantly though, the Supreme Court established a precedent that a person has a privacy right to his/her digital data. This decision could have far reaching effects, including such things like how data is protected on social media networks or whether photos on Tumblr or Instagram can be accessed by the police. The Supreme Court and lower courts will likely continue to hear cases that try to refine this privacy right to a person’s digital data. Continue to come to LA Jewish Lawyer blog for the latest legal news. And please call our toll-free number (855) 977-1212 for a FREE CONSULTATION about your legal matter from one of our network of attorneys.