The U.S. Supreme Court’s 4th Amendment and Cell Phone Case and Its Implications for the Third Party Doctrine
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision on two cases involving the police searching cell phones incident to arrest. The Court held 9-0 in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts that the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant to search a cell phone even after a person is placed under arrest.
The two cases are Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, and they are decided in the same opinion with the title Riley v. California. The Court must have chosen toname the case after Riley to make things hard for criminal procedure experts, as there is a famous Fourth Amendment case called Florida v. Riley, 488 U,S, 445 (1989), which will now create confusion whenever someone refers to the “Riley case.”
Fourth Amendment Warrants
As a general rule, the government must obtain a warrant before engaging in a search. A warrant is an authorization by an independent judge or magistrate that is given to law enforcement officials after they properly justify their reason for conducting the search. There must be probable cause to search — a reasonable belief that the search will turn up evidence of a crime. The warrant requirement is one of the key protections of privacy because it ensures that the police just can’t search on a whim or a hunch. They must have a justified basis to search, and that must be proven before an independent decisionmaker (the judge or magistrate).
The Search Incident to Arrest Exception
But there are dozens of exceptions where government officials don’t need a warrant to conduct a search. One of these exceptions is a search incident to arrest. This exception allows police officers to search property on or near a person who has been arrested. In Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), the Supreme Court held that the police could search the area near an arrestee’s immediate control. The rationale was that waiting to get a warrant might put police officers in danger in the event arrestees had hidden dangerous items hidden on them or that arrestees would have time to destroy evidence. In United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973), the Court held that there doesn’t need to be identifiable danger in any specific case in order to justify searches incident to arrest. Police can just engage in such a search as a categorical rule.
What About Searching Cell Phones Incident to Arrest?
In today’s Riley case, the Court examined whether the police are allowed to search data on a cell phone incident to arrest without first obtaining a warrant. The Court held that cell phone searches should be treated differently from typical searches incident to arrest because cell phones contain so much data and present a greater invasion of privacy than more limited searches for physical objects: “Cell phones, however, place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals. A search of the information on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the type of brief physical search considered in Robinson.”