Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Supreme Court Says Police Can't Go Snooping Through Your Cell Phone Following An Arrest Without A Warrant

The Supreme Court handed down a unanimous ruling today that strikes a blow for Fourth Amendment advocates in the digital era. The decision today in Riley v. California written by Chief Justice John Roberts declined to extend the permissible searches made incidental to a custodial arrest to the digital data found on an arrestee's cell phone.  Data stored on the phone the Court concluded cannot be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer.

This decision actually involved two separate cases. In one case, the police charged a defendant on weapons charges after making a routine traffic arrest. After searching the data on his cell phone, the police found information it later used to charge him in connection with a gang-related shooting. In the second case, police made an arrest of an individual after witnessing him make a drug sale. A search of his cell phone turned up information about calls received from a particular address, which information they used to obtain a search warrant of the property associated with the person who made the calls where they found a large stash of drugs. The defendants in both cases were convicted at trial based on evidence obtained by police without a warrant from their cell phones.

The government claimed the risk of remote wiping of data from the cell phone following the arrest justified a warrantless search, but the Court noted that law enforcement has available technology for preventing the destruction of evidence in this manner. The Court reasoned that substantial privacy interests outweighed any necessity the police might have in searching the data on a phone as a general practice. The Court observed that data on the phone involves many distinct types of information, the phone's capacity allows just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible and the data can date back many years.

The ruling today does not prevent a search of an arrestee's cell phone; it simply says the police will have to obtain a search warrant if it wants to search the phone unless the police can demonstrate the existence of exigent circumstances. Examples offered by the Court of exigent circumstances included: to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence; to pursue a fleeing suspect; and to assist persons who are seriously injured or are threatened with imminent injury.

One wouldn't think today's decision bodes well for the increased use of technology like Stingray where police are grabbing cell phone data from multiple users within a geographic area, all without obtaining a search warrant. Both the Indiana State Police and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department are utilizing this technology.

UPDATE: This Chicago Tribune here discusses the Chicago Police Department's use of Stingray-like technology and how this decision likely makes its use unlawful as a result of this decision.


Anonymous said...

Gary, I apologize but it has been a long time since H.S. civics class (and the idea of cell phones was only a reality on Star Trek in those days). Wouldn't 4th admendment advocates like that police can't use phone data without a warrant? Or were these advocates wanting to restrict police from accessing phone data even in situations when police are pursing a fleeing suspect or trying to assist a seriosly injued person, etc. And how could phone data be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer? Seems like the data would be used to prosecute the phone's owner. Thanks!

Gary R. Welsh said...

I say it "strikes a blow for" Fourth Amendment advocates--that means to help. I didn't say it "strikes a blow against" Fourth Amendment advocates.