Supreme Court: 4th Amendment Protects Cell Phones

June 25, 2014

Cell phone iphone smartphoneThe Supreme Court issued a unanimous Fourth Amendment decision today that has been called a “sweeping endorsement of digital privacy.” The decision, Riley v. California, addressed two separate cases involving warrantless searches of cell phones. The Court ruled these searches were unconstitutional invasions of privacy.

In the first case, a man was stopped for a traffic violation but was eventually arrested on weapons charges. The officer searching the man incident to the arrest seized a cell phone from the man’s pocket. The officer accessed information on the phone and saw the repeated use of a term associated with a street gang—and later a detective specializing in gangs searched the phone at the police station. Based on photos and other evidence found on the phone, the State of California brought charges related to a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier, and sought enhanced sentencing based on gang membership.

In the second case, a man was arrested after being observed participating in an apparent drug sale. At the police station, an officer seized a cell phone from the man’s possession, and during interrogation noticed that the phone kept receiving calls from a source identified as “My House” on the phone’s external screen. The officer accessed the phone’s call log, and the police traced the number to what they assumed was the man’s apartment. After securing a search warrant for the apartment, they found drugs, cash, and a firearm, and the man was charged with federal drug and firearm offenses.

In both cases, the question was whether the warrantless searches of the cell phones, incident to arrest, were constitutional under the Fourth Amendment.

In a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court held that the searches violated the Fourth Amendment. Without a warrant, police may not search digital information on a cell phone that has been seized from an individual who has been arrested.

In contrast to several other recent, high-profile Fourth Amendment decisions, which—due to Justice Scalia’s influence—have focused a bit more on the protection of property interests, this decision was based largely on the protection of privacy interests. Noting the many kinds of information that can be stored on cell phones, and comparing cell phones to other objects that might be searched incident to an arrest, the Court determined that “[m]odern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.”

Riley stands out not only for its focus on privacy interests instead of property interests, but also for its unanimity. Several recent, high-profile Fourth Amendment decisions have been divided 5-4, with the justices disagreeing over whether a search should be permitted—or over what the rationale should be, for allowing or disallowing the search. Here, the Chief’s opinion was joined by all the other justices, save Justice Alito, who filed a separate concurring opinion.

FYI, I will presenting on these Fourth Amendment trends and issues, and on the Supreme Court’s major Fourth Amendment decisions over the past several years, at the Federal Bar Association’s upcoming annual convention, September 4–6, in Providence, RI.