On June 24, 2014 the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Riley v. California2 that requires police officers to obtain a warrant prior to searching the contents of a cell phone that was obtained during an arrest. The court was unanimous in its holding, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority and Justice Samuel Alito filing a concurring opinion. The opinion examined two fundamental questions: (1) was searching the contents of a phone required for officer safety or to preserve evidence; and (2) to what extent does a search of a cell phone intrude on a person’s privacy.
On the first issue, Roberts noted that the digital data in a cell phone is incapable of being used as a weapon during an arrest. Therefore, while the Court acknowledged that an officer may examine the physical phone (i.e., to check for hidden razor blades or other weapons) an officer does not have similar fears from data.
The Court also found that fears of evidence destruction were too remote, as the arrestee would presumably be restrained during the search.
When reviewing the level of protection the information on a phone should receive, Roberts noted that cell phones are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” The Court continued to discuss the myriad pieces of information that cell phones, especially smart phones, contain about our daily lives, noting that it is possible for the police to learn more about a person from their phone than even a search of their home may produce. Taking the two analyses together, the Court found that the police must obtain a warrant before searching a cell phone.
Justice Alito agreed in the result of the opinion, but filed a separate opinion to voice his concern that the case may have unintended consequences. He noted that under the Court’s ruling, hard copy documents found incident to an arrest are properly obtained, but the same document on a phone is not. He suggested that legislatures may need to enact new laws with specific categories of information that should be protected from these types of searches, instead of relying on a blanket rule under the Fourth Amendment.