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United States Supreme Court Holds Warrantless Search of Cell Phone is Unlawful

Today, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled unanimously that search and seizure of the contents of a cell phone during an arrest is an unreasonable search and seizure and is, therefore, unlawful. Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ___ (2014). This ruling resolves a longstanding circuit split over the cell phone search-incident-to-arrest doctrine, and mirrors the Florida Supreme Court's holding in Smallwood v. State, 113 So. 3d 724 (Fla. 2013), which we previously blogged about here. 

David Leon Riley, was arrested on August 22, 2009, after a traffic stop resulted in the discovery of loaded firearms in his car. The officers took Riley's phone, and searched through his messages, contacts, videos, and photographs. Based in part on the data stored on Riley's phone, the officers charged him with an unrelated shooting which had taken place several weeks prior to his arrest.

Riley's lawyer moved to suppress all the evidence the officers had obtained during the search of his cell phone on the grounds that the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court rejected this argument and held that the search was legitimate incident to arrest. Riley was convicted. On appeal, the court affirmed the judgment based on a recent California Supreme Court decision, which held that the Fourth Amendment "search-incident-to-arrest" doctrine permits the police to conduct a full search of a cell phone whenever the phone is found near a suspect at the time of arrest.

However, the Supreme Court now holds that searching a cell phone incident to arrest requires a warrant. The Court took care to distinguish their ruling from their prior ruling in United States v. Robinson, which established that the government can conduct a complete search of the person incident to arrest. According to the Court, modern cell phones are different in the quantity of information they can store, and bear little resemblance to the type of physical objects contemplated byRobinson. Moreover, the Court explained that the threats of harm to officers from cell phones, as well as the threat of a suspect destroying evidence on his phone, are not enough to overcome Fourth Amendment concerns.

The Riley decision vindicates the beliefs of those who believe in a robust right to privacy. As we previously wrote in our Smallwood post, if the right to be free from unreasonable searches is to have any meaning, law enforcement officers should not be permitted to rummage through what has developed to be the most private of our depositories. This is a victory for constitutional law advocates everywhere and will certainly help us defend the rights of many future clients.

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