Wednesday, June 25, 2014
A unanimous Supreme Court today ruled in Riley v. California that officers must obtain a warrant before searching an arrrestee's cell phone incident to arrest. The ruling deals a blow to law enforcement, to be sure. But it only means that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before searching a cell phone, or satisfy some other exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement (like exigent circumstances), before conducting a search of the phone. In general, this should not be overly difficult, assuming that an officer can meet the requirements for a warrant: an arresting officer need only drop a seized cell phone into a Faraday bag and obtain a warrant for a later search. Again: the ruling still preserves other exceptions to the warrant requirement, so that officers can search a phone without a warrant if there are exigent circumstances, for example.
The ruling breaks little new ground on Fourth Amendment analysis. Instead, it applies a familiar framework to a relatively new technology, cell phones. (The ruling applies to both smart phones and flip phones.)
The Court applied the familiar balancing test, "assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which [the search] intrudes upon an individual's privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests." Wyoming v. Houghton. As to government interests, the Court looked to the two recognized interests in a search incident to arrest in Chimel: to remove weapons that threaten officer safety or could be used for escape, and to prevent the destruction of evidence.
The Court said that the government lacked an interest in protecting officer safety or preventing escape, because "a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee's escape." It said that the government lacked an interest in protecting evidence, because officers can easily protect evidence on a seized cell phone (by turning it off, or putting it in a Faraday bag, to prevent remote wiping, for example). (The Court said that there was little evidence that destruction of evidence was even a problem.)
On the other side of the balance, the Court recognized the massive storage capacity and vast personal information contained in cell phones, and contained remotely but accessible by cell phones, and said that the search was a significant invasion of privacy, even if diminished in the context of an arrest.
On the government interest side, Robinson concluded that the two risks identified in Chimel--harm to officers and destruction of evidence--are present in all custodial arrests. There are no comparable risks when the search is of digital data. In addition, Robinson regarded any privacy interests retained by an individual after arrest as significantly diminished by the fact of the arrest itself. Cell phones, however, place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals. As search of the information on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the type of brief physical search considered in Robinson.
Justice Alito wrote a concurrence (for himself alone), arguing that the search-incident-to-arrest rule should be based on the government's interest in "the need to obtain probative evidence," and not the two Chimel interests. He also called on Congress and state legislatures "to assess and respond to to [technological advances] that have already occurred and those that almost certainly will take place in the future."