Thursday, June 26, 2014

SCOTUS: Cellphone Searches Require Warrants

This week, the Supreme Court ruled on an area of law that had been unsettled throughout the country: whether police officers need warrants to search the cellphones of people they arrest. Some courts had held that the “search incident to arrest” doctrine, whereby officers can search arrestees and the area immediately surrounding them, meant that they didn’t. But Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the unanimous Court, said on Wednesday that they do. (Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ___ (2014).)

(For information on the counterarguments to the ruling, see Does the SCOTUS Cellphone Decision Jeopardize Law Enforcement?)

“Let Me See That”

The Court considered two cases. In the first, a San Diego police officer had stopped a driver because of expired registration tags. During the stop, the officer determined that David Riley’s license was suspended. The officer arranged for impound of the vehicle, which provided justification for another officer’s “inventory search” of it. That search turned up two handguns, leading to Riley’s arrest for possession of concealed and loaded firearms. Riley’s arrest supported another search—this one of his person. And in the course of that search, an officer found and perused a smart phone that had been in Riley’s pocket. A detective later examined the phone more closely. When they were done, officers had found evidence to support Riley’s conviction on charges unrelated to the traffic stop, including attempted murder.

In the second case, the police took the flip phone of a man named Brima Wurie after arresting him for drug sales. They checked the phone’s call log and traced one of the numbers to an apartment building. When the officers got to the building, they saw a mailbox with Wurie’s name. By peeking into the window of an apartment, they were also able to see a woman resembling the subject of a photo they had seen on his phone. So, they got a warrant, then searched the apartment. They found enough evidence for charges relating to distribution of crack cocaine and illegal firearm possession. But, though Wurie lost his motion to suppress the evidence at the apartment, the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on the grounds that the officers didn’t have a warrant for the cellphone search.

A Cigarette Pack or a House?

In support of the ruling that the cellphone search in each case required a warrant, Chief Justice Roberts noted the ubiquity of mobile devices. He wrote that a “significant majority” of adults own smartphones, and cited a poll indicating that “nearly three-quarters of smartphone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12% admitting that they even use their phones in the shower.”

The Chief Justice distinguished between physical and digital evidence—it’s one thing to allow officers to examine a cigarette pack containing heroin, for example, and quite another to let them scour a “minicomputer.” He invoked the following observation by Judge Learned Hand in 1926: “[I]t is ‘a totally different thing to search a man’s pockets and use against him what they contain, from ransacking his house for everything which may incriminate him.’” 

In that vein, the Court equated a cellphone with a house, which the government needs a warrant to search. It explained that a mobile phone actually contains more sensitive information than a home—anything from financial records to medical documents to data that can establish exactly where the owner has been, and when.

In the end, it was an easy decision for SCOTUS, one of those too-infrequent instances where it staunchly defends the Fourth Amendment.