Finally! A Victory for the Fourth Amendment
A decision in the case of Riley v. California came out yesterday with a victory for David Riley and for the rest of us. The case decided whether the police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. Justice John Roberts wrote the decision in favor of the plaintiff upholding Fourth Amendment rights.
David Riley was stopped for driving with expired registration tags. In the course of the stop, the officer discovered that Riley’s drivers’ license was also suspended. Riley’s car was searched and impounded. Riley was soon arrested for concealed and loaded firearms under the hood of the car during the search. An officer investigating the case found evidence that Riley was affiliated with the “Bloods” street gang.
The officer also took Riley’s smart phone from his pants pocket. Smart phones are not just cell phones. They have a broad range of other functions based on advanced computing, large storage capacity and Internet connectivity. The officer discovered text messages with the initials “CK”, a label that the officer assumed meant “Crips Killer.”
The officer also found pictures of Riley standing in front of a vehicle that he believed was involved in a shooting a few weeks later. Riley was ultimately charged with the shooting, with firing at an occupied vehicle, assault with a semi-automatic firearm, and attempted murder. The State alleged that Riley had committed those crimes for the benefit of a criminal street gang which holds an enhanced sentencing guideline.
Prior to trial, Riley’ attorney moved (requested) that all evidence obtained from the smartphone be suppressed. He contended that the searches of his phone violated his Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure without a search warrant. The court rejected the argument and Riley was ultimately convicted on all counts and received a 15 year sentence in prison. The California Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling and the California Supreme Court denied Riley’s Petition for Review.
The Fourth Amendment provides: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. As the text indicates, the main tenant of the Fourth Amendment is “reasonableness.”
The decision in Riley v. California was unanimous, something extremely rare for the Supreme Court these days. In oral arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts wondered about being able to differentiate between different apps on a phone that might have different privacy implications. “Could you have a rule that the police are entitled to search those apps that, in fact, don’t have an air of privacy about them?”
And he asked how a magistrate would be able to tell what part of the smartphone could be searched. “If you’re arresting somebody on the grounds of suspicion that he’s a gang member and you have evidence to support that, what part of the smartphone is not likely to have pertinent evidence?” he said.
When Justice Kennedy asked defense counsel if he had any “limiting principles” to apply, he responded that the search “should be relevant to the crime of arrest” and said the court could articulate the rule in a way that would “prevent roving searches or speculative searches.”
The justices acknowledged at times that the technology was difficult to keep up with.
Defense counsel prefaced one question to Justice Steven Breyer by saying, “I don’t know what kind of cell phone you have.” Breyer responded to laughter, “I don’t know either because I can never get into it because of the password.” I love a Supreme Court with very little knowledge of technology.
A unanimous court said that the police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested, unless there is an emergency circumstance. The decision is broader than some of us who attended or listened to oral argument thought it might be.
Steven R. Shapiro, the national legal director of the ACLU, had this reaction: “By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today’s decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans. We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognized, our old values still apply and limit the government’s ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives.”
The best quote was from Justice Roberts written decision wherein he talks about how pervasive cellphones are today: They have become “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”
Today was a good day for all civilians. Especially individuals who are profiled and are assumed to be committing crimes much more serious than expired license plate tags and drivers’ licenses. The majority of the more than twelve million arrests each year are for alleged misdemeanors, and most individuals arrested are never convicted of any crime.
For more detailed information about this case, including a transcript of the oral arguments, please see http://epic.org/amicus/cell-phone/riley/