June 25, 2014
Riley v. California, No. 13–132 (U.S. June 25, 2014)

In a California case, the Defendant was stopped for a traffic violation, which eventually led to his arrest on weapons charges. An officer searching Defendant incident to the arrest seized a cell phone from Defendant’s pants pocket. The officer accessed information on the phone and noticed the repeated use of a term associated with a street gang. At the police station two hours later, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the phone’s digital contents. Based in part on photographs and videos that the detective found, the State charged Defendant in connection with a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier and sought an enhanced sentence based on Defendant’s gang membership. Defendant moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone. The trial court denied the motion, and Defendant was convicted.

In a First Circuit case, the Defendant was arrested after police observed him participate in an apparent drug sale. At the police station, the officers seized a cell phone from Defendant’s person and noticed that the phone was receiving multiple calls from a source identified as “my house” on its external screen. The officers opened the phone, accessed its call log, determined the number associated with the “my house” label, and traced that number to what they suspected was Defendant’s apartment. They secured a search warrant and found drugs, a firearm and ammunition, and cash in the ensuing search. Defendant was then charged with drug and firearm offenses. He moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of the apartment. The District Court denied the motion, and Defendant was convicted.

Addressing the above two cases, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Riley v. California, No. 13–132, 2014 WL 2864483 (U.S. June 25, 2014), that police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. The court noted that in “Chimel v. California, 395 U. S. 752, requires that a search incident to arrest be limited to the area within the arrestee’s immediate control, where it is justified by the interests in officer safety and in preventing evidence destruction. In United States v. Robinson, 414 U. S. 218, the Court applied the Chimel analysis to a search of a cigarette pack found on the arrestee’s person. It held that the risks identified in Chimel are present in all custodial arrests, 414 U. S., at 235, even when there is no specific concern about the loss of evidence or the threat to officers in a particular case, Id., at 236. The trilogy concludes with Arizona v. Gant, 556 U. S. 332, which permits searches of a car where the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment, or where it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle, Id., at 343.” But, here, the court declined to extend Robinson’s categorical rule to searches of data stored on cell phones.

In balancing an individual’s privacy against the promotion of legitimate governmental interests, the court addressed both Chimel risks: (1) officer safety and (2) preventing evidence destruction. “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. Officers may examine the phone’s physical aspects to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, but the data on the phone can endanger no one.” Acknowledging that “information on the cell phone remains vulnerable to remote wiping and data encryption,” the court noted there is not evidence that “[remote wiping and data encryption] is prevalent or that the opportunity to perform a search incident to arrest would be an effective solution. And, at least as to remote wiping, law enforcement currently has some technologies of its own for combatting the loss of evidence.” Additionally, the court addressed a “possible rule to import the Gant standard from the vehicle context and allow a warrantless search of an arrestee’s cell phone whenever it is reasonable to believe that the phone contains evidence of the crime of arrest.” In response, the court noted that the “proposal is not appropriate in this context, and would prove no practical limit at all when it comes to cell phone searches.” Finally, the court addressed the possibility of “an analogue rule, under which officers could search cell phone data if they could have obtained the same information from a pre-digital counterpart.” The court rejected this proposal stating it “would allow law enforcement to search a broad range of items contained on a phone even though people would be unlikely to carry such a variety of information in physical form, and would launch courts on a difficult line-drawing expedition to determine which digital files are comparable to physical records.”

The court empathetically noted, “It is true that this decision will have some impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. But the Court’s holding is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is that a warrant is generally required before a search. The warrant requirement is an important component of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, and warrants may be obtained with increasing efficiency. In addition, although the search incident to arrest exception does not apply to cell phones, the continued availability of the exigent circumstances exception may give law enforcement a justification for a warrantless search in particular cases.” For example, “If ‘the police are truly confronted with a “now or never” situation,’—for example, circumstances suggesting that a defendant’s phone will be the target of an imminent remote-wipe attempt—they may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to search the phone immediately.” “Or, if officers happen to seize a phone in an unlocked state, they may be able to disable a phone’s automatic-lock feature in order to prevent the phone from locking and encrypting data.” The disabling of the automatic-lock feature “could be analyzed under the principles set forth in our decision in Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U. S. 326, which approved officers’ reasonable steps to secure a scene to preserve evidence while they awaited a warrant.”

You're currently subscribed as .
Unsubscribe | Legal Disclaimer
View this Message on the Web.
Tweet this email  Like Us on Facebook