The Supreme Court has just issued a landmark ruling banning law enforcement officers from searching an arrestee’s cell phone or mobile device without a warrant. According to all nine justices of the Supreme Court, a warrantless search of a mobile device, even a search incident to an arrest, is unconstitutional as a direct infringement on an arrestee’s sacred Fourth Amendment protections.
The Cases on Appeal
The ruling arrived as a decision on two companion cases: Riley v. CA and U.S. v. Wurie. In the matter of U.S. v. Wurie, which was litigated here in the U.S. District Court in Boston, police officers arrested the defendant after observing him sell two bags of crack cocaine out of a car. After the arrest, the officers performed a routine warrantless search of the defendant’s person (known as a “search incident to arrest”) and seized more than $1000 cash, keys, and two cell phones. One of the cell phones – a flip phone – was repeatedly receiving calls from a number labeled “my house;” the officers recorded the calling number and entered it into an online telephone directory. Their investigation led to a residence alleged to belong to the defendant, where they discovered more crack cocaine, marijuana, cash, a firearm, and ammo. Defendant was charged with three federal offenses.
In the matter of Riley v. CA, originating in the CA state courts, officers searched the defendant’s smartphone after he was arrested for driving an unregistered vehicle. While searching the smartphone, state police officers discovered texts, videos, and other data connecting the defendant to heavy gang activity, an attempted murder, and a prior incident involving an assault with a semi-automatic. The defendant was convicted on all counts by a state trial court, and the conviction was affirmed by the appellate court. After the California Supreme Court refused to accept another appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the matter together with U.S. v. Wurie.
The Court’s Landmark Decision
The ruling in these two cases marks an enormous victory for criminal defense attorneys, free speech advocates, and criminal defendants all across the nation. Not only did the Supreme Court unanimously extend Fourth Amendment protections to cell phones and mobile devices, but it also rejected all arguments and suggestions offered by both the U.S. attorneys and the California state attorneys seeking any leeway for law enforcement officers to search these devices.
The Supreme Court made no compromises in this decision; it categorically refused to allow any search of any mobile device when the officers do not have a warrant and when no emergency exists. The reasoning underlying this broad decision stems from the Court’s recognition that cell phones and mobile devices in today’s society require substantially more protection because of their storage capacity and their interconnectivity to remote servers (also known as “a cloud”).
Unlike past cases where defendants challenged (unsuccessfully) a search of their suitcase or vehicle after an arrest, the Supreme Court recognized that modern cell phones and mobile devices house incredibly vast amounts of information on their carrier. A search of a common smartphone may enable law enforcement officers to view messages, emails, photos, videos, financial information, personal documents, call log data, contacts, web history, and GPS information on the carrier’s locations – among other things.
Since most smart phone users store (either knowingly or not) hosts of private information on their cell phones and in “a cloud,” permitting a warrantless search of a cell phone would render the owner substantially more vulnerable to intrusion on privacy than if law enforcement officers were to search every corner of the owner’s home. And under American law, a home is traditionally the most protected space by the Constitution – a fundamental constitutional protection that the Founding Fathers highly treasured and fought to protect from infringement by Great Britain. This decision therefore equates – if not raises – protections over mobile devices to those over homes.
Implications of the Court’s Decisions
The greatest concern that immediately arises from this decision is whether law enforcement officers will be able to adequately protect the public given the heavy restrictions on searches imposed by this decision. In the words of the Supreme Court: “We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime.” The being said, however, the Supreme Court affirms: “Privacy comes at a cost.”
Furthermore, the decision still allows police to search cell phones and mobile devices where they reasonably believe that an emergency exists. An emergency in this context would require that either the public or police officers are in immediate danger, or that evidence may be at immediate risk of being destroyed. Outside of these two sets of circumstances, however, it would be unreasonable – and so unconstitutional – to search an arrestee’s cell phone.
The Supreme Court also reassured law enforcement agencies all across the nation that its decision neither overturns any past decision, nor does it render mobile device data completely immune from searches. Instead, all the Court’s decision requires is that a warrant be sought and obtained prior to searching the cell phone. Outside of emergencies, officers may always seize the cell phone, apply for a complaint, and then search the cell phone once the warrant issues. And as the Court notes, several jurisdictions have recently allowed expedited warrants through email, telephone, and other electronic transmission. A warranted search of a cell phone, therefore, should not be too delayed from the time of arrest.
Ultimately, the Court does not believe its decision is too intrusive on law enforcement. In the words of Chief Justice Roberts, the solution is simple – “Get a warrant”