On June 25, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the case of Riley v. California, that police may not generally search the cell phones of people they arrest without first getting search warrants. Should the police confront an authentic “now or never” situation, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, they may be entitled to search the cell phone if “exigent circumstances” exist. However, “[t]he 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.”

The Court had heard arguments in April 2014 in two cases addressing warrantless searches of cell phones. The first case, Riley v. California, involved the arrest of David L. Riley, who was pulled over by police in San Diego in 2009 for having an expired vehicle registration. The police found loaded guns in his car.  After seizing a cell phone from Riley’s pants pockets, the police found text messages and words in his contact list associated with the “Bloods” street gang.  At the police department about two hours after his arrest, a gang detective searched the phone again and found videos and photographs linking Riley to gang and other criminal activity, including a shooting.  Riley was later convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. The California Court of Appeal said neither search of Riley’s phone required a search warrant.  The second case, United States v. Wurie, involved a warrantless search of the call log of a flip phone belonging to Brima Wurie, arrested in 2007 after a police officer observed him making a drug deal from his vehicle. The U.S. Court of Appeals found that the police needed to have obtained a warrant to search the cell phone.

In reviewing the Riley and Wurie cases, the U.S. Supreme Court analyzed the privacy rights of individuals in the data on their cell phones.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote that cell phones  “…are now 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 also acknowledged the vast amount of private data that can be stored on cell phones. The Court balanced the privacy rights of individuals against the police’s interest in conducting searches of cell phones without first securing a warrant.  Traditionally, harm to police officers and a risk of destruction of evidence have served as rationales for allowing searches of physical objects without first seeking a warrant.  The Court found that harm to police officers, and a risk of destruction of evidence, are not risks associated with searching the digital content on a cell phone.  Digital data on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm a police officer or to effectuate the escape of the arrestee.

Police may still search a phone’s physical aspects to make sure that the phone itself will not be used as a weapon, but since the data on the phone does not endanger anyone, the data cannot be searched without a warrant. Given the “vast quantities of information literally in the hands of individuals,” the privacy interests of the individual outweigh the interests of the government in conducting a search of a cell phone without a warrant.  Regarding the destruction of evidence, the Court stated that such concerns are remote, and that there are reasonable methods police may use to prevent the destruction of evidence on cell phones.  For example, remote wiping of a cell phone can be prevented by police turning the phone off or removing the battery.  Also encryption of data on the phone may be avoided by leaving the phone on and placing it in an enclosure that isolates it from radio waves.  The Court acknowledged that, if the police can demonstrate they still have concerns about the loss of evidence on a cell phone, they  may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to search the cell phone without first obtaining a warrant. For example, if there is evidence to suggest that an arrestee’s cell phone will be the target of an imminent remote-wipe, the police may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to conduct a warrantless search.

The Court unanimously held that police officers must generally secure a search warrant before conducting a search of a cell phone.  Justice Roberts acknowledged that the Riley decision “…will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime.”  However, an individual’s privacy interest in the vast amount of personal information that can be stored on cell phones outweighed the government’s interests in combatting crime.  Police departments should immediately evaluate and update their arrest and search procedures and practices to ensure compliance with Riley.  Police officers should also receive training on any changes or updates to practices relating to the search of cell phones.