A unanimous United States Supreme Court ruled that police must obtain a warrant to search the information on a suspect’s cellphone, in Riley vs. California. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the final sentence of the decision to leave no doubt about the instructions from the Supreme Court:
“Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.”
This case began back in 2009, when the San Diego police stopped a young driver because his car registration had expired. The police impounded the car and located two guns hidden under the hood. When the police arrested the defendant, they took his smart phone. The patrol officers gave the smart phone to a gang detective, who read the text messages, looked to see some names were marked CK for “Crip Killer,” and watched a video of young men fighting and yelling Blood gang terms. Eventually, the defendant was charged with a shooting and a special gang enhancement. During his trial, the gang detective testified about the items stored on the phone to show the defendant was a gang member.
Law enforcement tried to justify the search of the phone by saying it was normal search of the items on a person when the police arrest that person. Courts normally allow the search of a person when the police arrest him because the police need to be sure the arrested person does not have any weapons or contraband. So, the court would have permitted taking the phone out of his pocket, if the police had stopped there.
The Supreme Court said, “[l]aw enforcement officers remain free to examine the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon—say, to determine whether there is a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case. Once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, however, data on the phone can endanger no one.”
The Supreme Court ruled that the information inside the phone must be protected. The Court said that the term “cell phone” was misleading because a smart phone is a “minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone.” The Court listed “immense storage capacity” of smart phones and the fact that law enforcement could rummage through an unimaginable amount of private information on a smart phone.
When the Government tried to claim the search of all data stored on a cell phone is “materially indistinguishable” from searches of physical items, the Court mocked that suggestion. Judge Roberts wrote, “That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon. Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together.” While the police may remove physical items in a person’s pocket, any electronic data must remain private.
The Supreme Court said that police, without prior authorization from a judge, must not search the private information from a person. In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court said to police who want to search a cell phone: “Get a warrant!”