Supreme Court Preserves Cell Phone Privacy

Let’s face it: the cellphone has become the every man’s digital assistant. We use it to manager our calendars, store information on our personal and business contacts, do our basic banking, check our email, access our social media, navigate unfamiliar areas and hundreds of other tasks in our daily lives. As a result of modern technology and our everyday behaviors, our devices that we carry in our pockets and purses contain an enormous amount of personal data about you. Even your mere location is traceable whenever you make a call, send a text or upload a new status update.

In Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie, decided by the United States Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 25, 2014, the issue before the court, in both cases, was whether the police need a warrant to access information on a cell phone seized pursuant to an arrest. Traditionally, the police have a right to search suspects incident to an arrest for a couple of reasons. These searches are long recognized exceptions to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which protects persons against unreasonable searches and seizures. One reason that the courts have recognized is the safety of the officers. This is understandable and generally good policy because the safety of our police officers is paramount. The officers shouldn’t have to fear that a suspect in the back of their patrol car on the way to the station is going to pull a weapon. Another reason the courts have recognized a search incident to arrest as a valid exception to the warrant requirement is to protect against the possibility of an arrestee destroying or discarding potential evidence. Criminals have been known to swallow drugs or hide them.

In Riley and Wurie, the court reviewed two separate cases which presented the same issue, whether the police could use information obtained from the cell phone without a warrant as evidence in a subsequent criminal case. In both cases, officers found evidence of criminal activity based on information obtained from the cell phones. In both cases, the defendants unsuccessfully moved to have the trial court suppress the evidence obtained based on the cellphone contents. Both defendants were eventually convicted based, in part, on the evidence obtained from the phones.

In a unanimous opinion issued on June 25, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court held that digital evidence stored on cellphones, such as phone numbers, photographs,etc., was not covered by the exception for searches incident to an arrest, and that officers must first obtain a search warrant before searching through the digital contents of the electronic devices. The court stated that while officers could look at the phones physical aspects to ensure that it would not be used as a weapon, the data on the phone could endanger no one. Further the court left open a door for admissibility of the evidence obtained from a phone, under some other exception to the warrant requirement such as exigent circumstances. The court determined that accessing the data on the phone was a further intrusion into the privacy interest of the defendant, thus justifying the need for a warrant.

Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the court humorously remarked “these cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of the human anatomy.”

The court also addressed concerns over remote wiping and encryption which might be used to justify an “exigent circumstances” exception to the warrant requirement. The court stated in its opinion that incidents of remote wiping incident to an arrest are evidenced by “only a couple of anecdotal examples.” The court also stated that the officers could turn the phone off and remove its battery to alleviate these concerns.

This is an important ruling from the Supreme Court which will undoubtedly be cited by many courts in the years to come.