SCOTUS Answers the Call to Hear Cases on Warrantless Searches of Cellphones

BY DANA TURJMAN — On January 17, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to review two cases challenging law enforcement’s authority to conduct a warrantless search of an arrestee’s cell phone. The petitioners in the cases, United States v. Wurie and Riley v. California, argued that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated when police officers collected evidence from their cell phones during the petitioners’ arrests without a warrant. While the Supreme Court granted the government’s appeal without limitation in Wurie, the Supreme Court will limit its review in Riley to the constitutionality of the evidence actually admitted at trial. According to the Constitutional Accountability Center—a think-tank law firm that filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Riley—such cases could have “important implications for the scope of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizures.”

Brima Wurie was arrested by the Boston Police Department (“BPD”) officers on September 5, 2007, for distributing crack cocaine. While holding Wurie in custody, the officers confiscated two cell phones, a set of keys, and cash. Two BPD officers noticed that one of these cell phones was receiving numerous calls from a number displayed as “my house” on the caller ID screen. The officers searched the phone’s call log, discovered the phone number stored as “my house,” and determined the address associated with that phone number. Suspecting that the defendant was a drug dealer, the BPD officers drove to the apartment complex located at that address. The BPD officers entered Wurie’s apartment in order to “freeze” it until they were able to obtain a search warrant. After procuring a warrant, the law enforcement officers seized 215 grams of crack cocaine, four bags of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a firearm, and ammunition.

In addressing whether the search of Wurie’s cellphone was lawful, the First Circuit turned to the Fourth Amendment’s search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement. The court focused on the principles enunciated in Chimel v. California, where the Supreme Court concluded that an arresting officer was able “to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee’s person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction” as well as search “the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary items.” In rejecting the government’s position that searching Wurie’s cell phone fell within the Chimel exception, the First Circuit held that the officers had violated Wurie’s Fourth Amendment rights by searching his cell phone. Interestingly, the First Circuit’s reasoning was unrelated to Chimel’s justification for the exception—the protection of officer safety and preservation of evidence. Instead, the First Circuit focused on the fact that most Americans store personal information on their cell phones and allowing law enforcement to search that information without a warrant would pose “a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals.”

Similarly, David Riley was driving around San Diego with expired tags. When police pulled him over, they discovered that his license was suspended, and after searching his car, found guns under the hood. He was arrested for carrying concealed and loaded weapons. At the arrest site, the police searched through his cell phone and found evidence that linked Riley to a gang. The police discovered more evidence about his gang-related activities while searching through his cell phone a second time. Specifically, police found photos and videos that connected Riley to a gang-related drive-by shooting. Prior to trial, Riley moved to suppress the evidence obtained from his cell phone, arguing that the search without a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied Riley’s motion to suppress, finding the evidence was lawfully obtained as a search incident to arrest. During his trial, the prosecutor introduced the evidence from his cellphone against Riley, and ultimately, a jury convicted him on three charges: shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder, and assault with a semiautomatic firearm.

Riley appealed his convictions on the grounds that the trial court should have suppressed the evidence from his cell phone because it was obtained in contravention of his Fourth Amendment rights. The California Fourth District Court of Appeal, however, affirmed the lower court’s denial of Riley’s motion to suppress the evidence. The court reasoned that in Diaz v. California, the California Supreme Court had found that law enforcement could conduct warrantless searches of cell phones as long as the device was “immediately associated” with the arrestee’s “person.” Like the cell phone in Diaz, the court of appeal concluded that Riley’s cell phone was immediately associated with his person and affirmed his convictions.

State and federal courts are split on whether police officers can search an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant in order to gather evidence. Some courts have ruled that a warrant is required, while others have argued that it is not. Florida is one of six states that currently requires a warrant. However, an overwhelming majority of courts addressing the issue have sided with law enforcement’s warrantless position.

The outcome of the Supreme Court’s Wurie and Riley decisions could impact the Florida community, as the Florida Supreme Court might find itself rethinking its pro-warrant approach established in Smallwood v. State. The growing legal debate over technology and privacy rights is one that will likely affect cell phone owners—nine out of ten Americans. The truth is that with every technological innovation society must grapple with the struggle between privacy and safety: “’Every generation has its new technologies that raise novel Fourth Amendment questions,’ says Orin Kerr, an expert on computer crime law at George Washington University Law School. ‘Technology changes the facts.’” Here, technology could also change the law.

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