In Sarasota, Florida, most citizens carry a cell phone throughout the day and evening hours in their briefcases, purses, or in their pockets. In modern day America this is part of most adults’ life . . . to be able to send and receive cell phone calls at anytime, anywhere and to use the internet and all of the available applications of modern day cell phones.
In Riley v. California, No. 13-132 (Jun. 25, 2014), the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cellular phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. First, the Court held that a cell phone may be examined to ensure that it does not pose a physical threat: “Law enforcement officers remain free to examine the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon–say to determine whether there is a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case. Once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, the data on the phone can endanger no one.” The Court reasoned that “unknown physical objects may always pose risks, no matter how slight, during the tense atmosphere of a custodial arrest . . . However, “[n]o such unknowns exist with respect to digital data. . . . ”
The Court then held that an immediate search of a seized cellular telephone is not necessary to ensure that evidence is not lost. “To the extent that law enforcement still has specific concerns about the potential loss of evidence in a particular case, there remain more targeted ways to address those concerns” with a few exceptions.
The Court then considered the rule that “[t]he fact that an arrestee has diminished privacy interests does not mean that the Fourth Amendment falls out of the picture entirely. Not every search is acceptable solely because a person is in custody . . . To the contrary, when privacy–related concerns are weighty enough a search may require a warrant, notwithstanding the diminished expectations of privacy of the arrestee.” Therefore, a “conclusion that inspecting the contents of an arrestee’s pockets works no substantial additional intrusion on privacy beyond the arrest itself may make sense as applied to physical items, but any extension of that reasoning to digital data has to rest on its own bottom.” The Court held: “Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person. The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devises are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calenders, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.” The Court then proceeded to discuss the “immense storage capacity” of modern cellular telephones, and the sort of data that may be stored therein.
The Court clearly announced the rule governing searches of cellular telephones: “A warrant is generally required before [a search of a cellular telephone], even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.” The Court was careful to point out that some “case–specific exceptions may still justify the warrantless search of a particular phone.” The Court closed the opinion with a summary of its reasoning: “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. 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.”