In an astounding decision published this morning, the Supreme Court of the United States placed limits on warrantless police searches of electronic data storage devices. The unanimous decision settled a case titled Riley v. California and was immediately applied to a second case titled U.S. v. Wurie.
Both cases raised the constitutional question of whether it is reasonable to search someone’s cell phone after he has been arrested. Prisoners are routinely searched after an arrest. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that arresting officers may open and search any containers or bags held by a prisoner in a post arrest search. And in the past, numerous courts have ruled that cell phones and personal computers are analogous to containers.
The Fourth Amendment states: “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.” What Riley and Wurie boiled down to was whether police were allowed to simply inventory and secure a prisoner’s cell phone or whether their badges entitled them to rummage through all those parts of a prisoner’s private, personal life he stored on his phone
Riley was arrested after a “routine traffic stop” in San Diego found two guns in the engine compartment of his car. After he was arrested police searched the data on his smart phone and found videos, photos and text messages that suggested he had been involved in a shooting. The data on the phone was later introduced as evidence in a criminal trial and Riley was convicted.
Wurie was arrested by Boston police on suspicion of selling drugs. Police monitored the calls on his flip phone and saw a number on his phone screen that was identified as “my house.” Following a hunch that Wurie might have more drugs at his house, police traced the home’s address, raided it and found drugs. That evidence was introduced at Wurie’s trial and he was convicted.
Liberal Obama And Conservative Roberts
The Obama Administration, which has stubbornly opposed any limits on police searches of electronic data storage devices since it came to power in 2009, argued in Wurie “Although cell phones can contain a great deal of personal information, so can many other items that officers have long had authority to search, and the search of a cell phone is no more intrusive than other actions that the police may take once a person has been lawfully arrested.” The administration’s position in Wurie mirrors its continuing argument that all information on a personal computer should be considered to be “in plain sight.”
The obvious constitutional error in the Obama legal stance is that it encourages police to examine and record anyone’s texts, emails, photos, videos, calendar entries, notes, prescriptions, bank statements, phone numbers and GPS tracking data by contriving an arrest for a “crime” like jaywalking or disorderly conduct. In today’s decision, Chief Justice John Roberts observed “a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house.”
Robert’s answered the administration’s argument that a cell phone search is “materially indistinguishable” from a pat down with, “That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.”
“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” Roberts wrote. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life,’”
“The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”