The Cases that Led to the Supreme Court Ruling on Cell Phone Warrants
By Gary Minor, criminal justice faculty at American Military University
On June 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the ability to conduct blanket searches of cell phones from an arrested person violated the Fourth Amendment. The case was a combination of two cases: No. 13-132 Riley v. California and No. 13-212, United States v. Wurie (573 U.S. 2014).
In Riley, the defendant was stopped for a traffic violation, which led to his arrest for a weapons charge. While searching Riley—consistent with search incident to arrest—the officer found a cell phone in Riley’s pocket. The officer accessed the phone and discovered information showing Riley was involved in a gang-related shooting from a few weeks earlier. Riley was charged and convicted and received an enhanced sentence for gang affiliation. Riley moved to suppress the cell phone evidence, which was denied.
In the matter of Wurie, the defendant was arrested after police observed him during a drug sale. At the station, the cell phone was receiving calls from a location “my home.” The police opened the phone and accessed the log to determine the number. “My home” was the defendant’s apartment. The police obtained a warrant for the residence, searched it and found additional drugs, a firearm and ammunition. Like Riley, Wurie moved to suppress the cell phone evidence, which was denied. Wurie appealed to the First Circuit, which overturned the denial to suppress the cell phone evidence. The First Circuit held that police generally may not search a cell phone without a warrant.
Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the unanimous decision determined the question to be answered is: “whether the police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested” (Riley v. California, June 25, 2014). The first of these cases examined by the U.S. Supreme Court was Chimel v. California. The Supreme Court held in the Chimel case, search incident to arrest does not generally apply to cell phones.
In Chimel, officers arrested Chimel inside his home. In addition, incident to the arrest, they searched the entire residence including the attic and garage. The Court held in Chimel, that although the search violated the 4th Amendment, that “When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape” (Chimel v. California, 1969). In addition, the court also held that searching that area within the immediate control was also reasonable.
Four years later in United States v. Robinson , 1973, the court applying Chimel, found evidence seized from a cigarette packet was inadmissible as it provided no additional evidence to the reason Robinson was stopped, driving on a revoked license. In addition, the court found although the pat down for weapons was reasonable, searching a cigarette packet was not. Thus the heroin found in the cigarette pack was excluded and the case remanded.
In the third case, Arizona v. Gant, April 21, 2009, the court further limited the police ability to search incident to arrest. In Gant, Gant drove home to find the police at his residence. He parked and locked his car and walked to the police. He was arrested, handcuffed and put in the back of a police car. The police then searched his car and discovered drugs. The court recognized the Chimel “concerns for officer safety and evidence preservation underlie the search incident to arrest exception” (Riley v. California, June 25, 2014). However, the court also limited that exception.
“The Court concluded that Chimel could authorize police to search a vehicle only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search” (Riley v. California, June 25, 2014). Since Gant was handcuffed and locked in a patrol car, he had no access to evidence in the car or weapons. In addition, the court determined that the search could be reasonably conducted to preserve evidence of the crime arrested for. Since Gant was arrested on a warrant for driving while suspended, it was not reasonable to find evidence of that in the car.
From here, the court went onto determine whether the search incident to arrest doctrine as it applies to arrests also applies to cell phones. The court found, and rightly so with some humor that “modern cell phones, which 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” (Riley v. California, June 25, 2014).
The Government relied on Chimel and Robinson in that search incident to arrest has a compelling governmental interest in officer safety and the destruction of evidence. The court dismissed the government’s argument in that there can be no officer safety risk when the search is of digital information. Since the phone is no longer in the defendant’s possession, he cannot destroy evidence. “Digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape” (Riley v. California, June 25, 2014).
Both the U.S. Government and California were concerned with remote accessing the cell phone and encrypting the data or remote wiping. The Court brushed away with these arguments by simply stating that the police could power down the phone or removing the battery. Another method is to remove the SIM card. This card programs the phone and allows it to connect to its phone network. Remove the card and that problem is solved, as the phone cannot be accessed remotely.
The court had a further concern with issues of substantial privacy associated with the cell phone. As the court noted, cell phone is a misnomer. They are mini-computers. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information—an address, a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video—that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier (Riley v. California, June 25, 2014).
Because of these and other reasons too numerous to list in this blog, the Supreme Court has determined that generally, a search warrant is required to search a cell phone. They did leave the door open for potential exigent circumstances; however, it does not appear that the court would accept them.
About the Author: Gary Minor completed his bachelor’s degree in Police Science and Administration with a minor in Pre-Law from Washington State University in Pullman, WA. He received his MBA in Information Systems at City University in Washington while attending night school. After completing his MBA, he attended Seattle University School of Law and obtained his Juris Doctorate of law. He also obtained his police executive certification, a requirement to be a police chief executive of a law enforcement agency in Washington, and is a certified police officer. He is also certified to practice law in the state and federal courts in and for the State of Washington. His academic interests include police executive management, law and justice, juvenile justice and ethics in law enforcement. Professor Minor has significant executive experience, having served as a Chief of Police, President of the Snohomish County Police and Sheriff’s association and the South Snohomish County Police Advisory committee. He also served two terms as the Chairman of the Board for Emergency Services Coordinating Agency (ESCA), a FEMA affiliate.
Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (April 21, 2009).
Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969).
Del Carmen, R. V., & Walker, J. T. (2008). Briefs of Leading Cases in Law Enforcement (7 ed.). Newark, NJ: Anderson Publishing Company.
Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ______ (June 25, 2014).
United States v. Robinson , 414 U.S. 218 (1973).