Justices Bar Warrantless Cellphone Searches
WASHINGTON (CN) - Warrants are necessary for police to conduct digital searches on an arrestee's cellphone, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The essentially unanimous court looked at the issue by consolidating unrelated criminal cases from either coast of the United States.
In the San Diego case, police apprehended gang member David Riley on Aug. 22, 2009, after catching him driving a Lexus with expired registration tags.
Riley was being handed a ticket for driving with a suspended license when the officer searching the Lexus found two handguns hidden in an engine compartment. Both weapons were a match for a shooting that occurred earlier that month in Skyline.
Evidence on the shooting showed that Riley's Oldsmobile was parked in the street on Aug. 2, 2009, when three men standing beside it fired shots into another car passing by with a rival gang member at the wheel.
The shooters got into the Oldsmobile and drove away. Police found the Oldsmobile a day later, hidden under a car cover.
After Riley's arrest, a DNA test linked him and two other men as possible contributors to samples taken from one of the guns. Police had also seized Riley's cellphone, which contained photographs of Riley making gang signs. Phone records also showed that Riley had used the phone near the site of the shooting at around the time of the shooting, and did so again about 30 minutes later near the location where police found his Oldsmobile.
After the trial court refused to suppress the evidence obtained from the searches of Riley's car and cellphone, jurors convicted Riley of three counts: shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder and assault with an automatic firearm.
An appellate panel affirmed in February 2013 with Riley sentenced to 15 years to life.
The next case that the Supreme Court reviewed involved a defendant who fared better with his Fourth Amendment claims regarding a cellphone search.
Boston police had searched a cellphone belonging to Brima Wurie after they arrested him for distributing crack cocaine on Sept. 5, 2007.
During intake, one of Wurie's two phones received repeated incoming calls that the caller ID, visible from the front of the phone, identified as "my house."
The officers opened the phone to learn the phone number associated with that label and then connected that phone number to an address in South Boston close to where Wurie had parked his Nissan Altima before police arrested him.
Though Wurie had told investigators that he lived in Dorchester, they took his keys to the South Boston address.
The name Manny Cristal was associated with the address in the white pages, and that same name appeared alongside Wurie's on the mailbox outside the property.
When they arrived at the first-floor apartment and looked through the window, police noticed the resemblance between a black woman inside and a photo on Wurie's cellphone wallpaper. They entered the apartment to wait for a search warrant and ultimately uncovered cash, crack, a firearm, ammunition, and other drugs and drug paraphernalia.
Facing new weapons charges as felon in possession of a firearm, Wurie moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of his cellphone.
A federal judge denied the motion, and a jury ultimately convicted Wurie on three counts. He was sentenced to over 21 years in prison, but a divided three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit vacated that conviction in May 2013 after finding it would create "a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals" if police were allowed to search cellphone data without a warrant any time they conduct a lawful arrest.
The Supreme Court reversed the decision against Riley on Wednesday and affirmed vacating Wurie's conviction.
Its holding turned on the court's 1973 resolution of United States v. Robinson, which upheld a post-arrest search where officers conducting a pat-down uncovered a crumpled cigarette package containing 14 capsules of heroin.
"While Robinson's categorical rule strikes the appropriate balance in the context of physical objects, neither of its rationales has much force with respect to digital content on cell phones," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.
While the potential for harm to officers and destruction of evidence are present in all custodial arrests, Roberts said "there are no comparable risks when the search is of digital data."
And though an individual's arrest "significantly" diminishes his privacy interests, the court emphasized that cellphones "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," Roberts concluded. "We therefore decline to extend Robinson to searches of data on cell phones, and hold instead that officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search."
Officers remain free to search for hidden razor blades or other weapons in a phone, but the search must end there since "data on the phone can endanger no one," according to the ruling.
Though one could say the same of the cigarette pack seized from Robinson's pocket, Roberts noted that "unknown physical objects may always pose risks, no matter how slight, during the tense atmosphere of a custodial arrest."
"The officer in Robinson testified that he could not identify the objects in the cigarette pack but knew they were not cigarettes," he continued. "Given that, a further search was a reasonable protective measure. No such unknowns exist with respect to digital data. As the First Circuit explained, the officers who searched Wurie's cell phone 'knew exactly what they would find therein: data. They also knew that the data could not harm them.'"
Remote wiping and data encryption could lead to the destruction of evidence after police have seized a cellphone, but the justices said they found 'little reason to believe that either problem is prevalent."
Justice Samuel Alito concurred in part and concurred in judgment, questioning the court's reliance on the 1969 decision Chimel v. California.
It was that case that led the court to identify officer safety and the preservation of evidence as "the sole reasons for allowing a warrantless search incident to arrest," but Alito said "Chimel's reasoning is questionable, and I think it is a mistake to allow that reasoning to affect cases like these that concern the search of the person of arrestees."