Riley v. California, Nos. 13-132, Supreme Court of the United States, June 25, 2014. Chief Justice Roberts addressed the issue of whether police may, without a warrant, search the contents of an accused cell phone or smartphone subsequent to arrest. David Riley was stopped by police while driving with an expired tag. A computer check also indicated that Riley was driving with a suspended license. A search of his vehicle incident to arrest revealed firearms under the hood. He was then arrested with possession of concealed weapons. Further, some items were found on Riley that associated him with the street gang known as the “Bloods.” Police then searched the contents of his cell phone without a warrant. A subsequent search of the phone revealed contacts with other gang members and photos and videos that associated Riley with an earlier drive-by shooting.
The Supreme Court analyzed the issue in light of three cases dealing with searches incident to arrest. In Chimel v. California, 395 U. S. 752 (1969), during an arrest that occurred in the Defendant’s home the Court approved a search of the accused’s person and his immediate vicinity but not of his entire home. In United States v. Robinson, 414 U. S. 218 (1973), the Court approved a search of a person without a warrant incident to arrest to search for weapons and other evidence such as drugs in a crumpled cigarette pack on the person. In Arizona v. Gant, 556 U. S. 332, 350 (2009), the Court approved a warrantless search of the person in the context of an arrest after a traffic stop only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search as well as the vehicle’s passenger compartment when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.
A Cell phone provides none of these elements. It is more akin to a home than a person or a car. Nothing in a cellphone can be used as a weapon and there is rarely evidence of a crime currently being committed that might be lost or disappear in some evidential sense that could not be handled in the context of getting and waiting for a warrant to issue. Further, cell phones can carry a small library of information about a person including very detailed and private matters. Not providing 4th Amendment protection to a cell phone without a warrant would render the 4th Amendment truly meaningless. Therefore, the Supreme Court held that a warrantless search of a cell phone is not permitted under the 4th Amendment.
-Author: George Creal