U.S. Supreme Court rules to Protect Privacy Rights with Smart Phone Searches

Trisha Barita June 25, 2014

On the issue of privacy, there is always a balance to be struck between what sacrifice must be made in order to continue to maintain and protect our right to privacy.  The U.S. Supreme Court expressed an opinion today that law enforcement’s ability to search through cell phones they obtain during an arrest is not a worthy price for the right to privacy it violates.  In a review of two cases out of the Court today, the Court recognized the investigative advantage of the warrant less search, but determined that a warrant will generally be needed by law enforcement from now on.

In Riley v. California, an officer’s stop for a routine traffic violation by Riley led to Riley being arrested on weapons charges.  During the arrest, the Officer searched Riley and found a cell phone in Riley’s pocket.  The Officer looked at info on the phone and saw terms related to a gang and then gave the cell phone to a detective who found photos and video that partly linked Riley to a shooting a few weeks earlier.  In partial reliance of this smart phone evidence, the State of California charged him in connection to the shooting.  In the same link as above, the Court also rules on United v. Wurie, a case where a similar incident occurred when Wurie was arrested for a potential drug sale and the officers noticed the phone receiving calls from a house.  The Officers used the phone date to locate the house and obtain a warrant and discovered drugs.

The Court discusses the different privacy issues that warrant less searches held prior to smart phones, where the Officer was limited to the information he or she might discover.  With the immense storage ability of smart phones and cell phones, the amount of data is much larger.  Specifically, in Riley, the Court mentions that, a decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the “more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.” Riley, pg. 19.  While exigent circumstances, such as a connection to a communication with a co-conspirator on a potential bomb threat or child abductor could allow for a warrant less search of cell phone data, without those facts present then a warrant will generally be needed. Riley, pg.26-27.

The Court relies heavily on the initial protections provided by the Fourth Amendment to ward against warrant less searches and seizures.  That the Fourth Amendment was our Founding Father’s response to the “general warrants” and “writs of assistance” of the British colonial era, “which allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.”  Riley, pg. 27.    In closing, the Court states in the Riley opinion, “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.”  Riley, pg. 28.  Read the full opinions here.

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