US Supreme Court Holds No Cellphone Search Without Warrant

On June 25th, 2014, the United States Supreme Court held in two criminal cases that the police may not generally search a cell phone without a warrant.

In Riley v California, Docket Nos. 13-132 and 13-212, the Supreme Court addressed two similar cases involving warrantless searches of criminal suspects' cellphones.

From the opinion's syllabus:

"In No. 13–132, petitioner Riley was stopped for a traffic violation, which eventually led to his arrest on weapons charges. An officer searching Riley incident to the arrest seized a cell phone from Riley’s pants pocket. The officer accessed information on the phone and noticed the repeated use of a term associated with a street gang. At the police station two hours later, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the phone’s digital contents. Based in part on photographs and videos that the detective found, the State charged Riley in connection with a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier and sought an enhanced sentence based on Riley’s gang membership. Riley moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone. The trial court denied the motion, and Riley was convicted. The California Court of Appeal affirmed.

In No. 13–212, respondent Wurie was arrested after police observed him participate in an apparent drug sale. At the police station, the officers seized a cell phone from Wurie’s person and noticed that the phone was receiving multiple calls from a source identified as [']my house['] on its external screen. The officers opened the phone, accessed its call log, determined the number associated with the [']my house['] label, and traced that number to what they suspected was Wurie’s apartment. They secured a search warrant and found drugs, a firearm and ammunition, and cash in the ensuing search. Wurie was then charged with drug and firearm offenses. He moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of the apartment. The District Court denied the motion, and Wurie was convicted. The First Circuit reversed the denial of the motion to suppress and vacated the relevant convictions.

Held: The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. Pp. 5–28.

(a) A warrantless search is reasonable only if it falls within a specific exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. See Kentucky v. King, 563 U. S. ___, ___. The well-established exception at issue here applies when a warrantless search is conducted incident to a lawful arrest.

Three related precedents govern the extent to which officers may search property found on or near an arrestee. Chimel v. California, 395 U. S. 752, requires that a search incident to arrest be limited to the area within the arrestee’s immediate control, where it is justified by the interests in officer safety and in preventing evidence destruction. In United States v. Robinson, 414 U. S. 218, the Court applied the Chimel analysis to a search of a cigarette pack found on the arrestee’s person. It held that the risks identified in Chimel are present in all custodial arrests, 414 U. S., at 235, even when there is no specific concern about the loss of evidence or the threat to officers in a particular case, id., at 236. The trilogy concludes with Arizona v. Gant, 556 U. S. 332, which permits searches of a car where the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment, or where it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle, id., at 343. Pp. 5–8.

(b) The Court declines to extend Robinson’s categorical rule to searches of data stored on cell phones. Absent more precise guidance from the founding era, the Court generally determines whether to exempt a given type of search from the warrant requirement [']by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it 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, 526 U. S. 295, 300. That balance of interests supported the search incident to arrest exception in Robinson. But a search of digital information on a cell phone does not further the government interests identified in Chimel, and implicates substantially greater individual privacy interests than a brief physical search. Pp. 8–22.

(1) The digital data stored on cell phones does not present either Chimel risk. Pp. 10–15.

(i) Digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape. Officers may examine the phone’s physical aspects to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, but the data on the phone can endanger no one. To the extent that a search of cell phone data might warn officers of an impending danger, e.g., that the arrestee’s confederates are headed to the scene, such a concern is better addressed through consideration of case-specific exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as exigent circumstances. See, e.g., Warden, Md. Penitentiary v. Hayden, 387 U. S. 294, 298–299. Pp. 10–12.

(ii) The United States and California raise concerns about the destruction of evidence, arguing that, even if the cell phone is physically secure, information on the cell phone remains vulnerable to remote wiping and data encryption. As an initial matter, those broad concerns are distinct from Chimel’s focus on a defendant who responds to arrest by trying to conceal or destroy evidence within his reach. The briefing also gives little indication that either problem is prevalent or that the opportunity to perform a search incident to arrest would be an effective solution. And, at least as to remote wiping, law enforcement currently has some technologies of its own for combatting the loss of evidence. Finally, law enforcement’s remaining concerns in a particular case might be addressed by responding in a targeted manner to urgent threats of remote wiping, see Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U. S. ___, ___, or by taking action to disable a phone’s locking mechanism in order to secure the scene, see Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U. S. 326, 331–333. Pp. 12–15.

(2) A conclusion that inspecting the contents of an arrestee’s pockets works no substantial additional intrusion on privacy beyond the arrest itself may make sense as applied to physical items, but more substantial privacy interests are at stake when digital data is involved. Pp. 15–22.

(i) Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person. Notably, modern cell phones have an immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on privacy. But cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos. This has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. Third, data on the phone can date back for years. In addition, an element of pervasiveness characterizes cell phones but not physical records. A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives. Pp. 17– 21.

(ii) The scope of the privacy interests at stake is further complicated by the fact that the data viewed on many modern cell phones may in fact be stored on a remote server. Thus, a search may extend well beyond papers and effects in the physical proximity of an arrestee, a concern that the United States recognizes but cannot definitively foreclose. Pp. 21–22.

(c) Fallback options offered by the United States and California are flawed and contravene this Court’s general preference to provide clear guidance to law enforcement through categorical rules. See Michigan v. Summers, 452 U. S. 692, 705, n. 19. One possible rule is to import the Gant standard from the vehicle context and allow a warrantless search of an arrestee’s cell phone whenever it is reasonable to believe that the phone contains evidence of the crime of arrest. That proposal is not appropriate in this context, and would prove no practical limit at all when it comes to cell phone searches. Another possible rule is to restrict the scope of a cell phone search to information relevant to the crime, the arrestee’s identity, or officer safety. That proposal would again impose few meaningful constraints on officers. Finally, California suggests an analogue rule, under which officers could search cell phone data if they could have obtained the same information from a pre-digital counterpart. That proposal would allow law enforcement to search a broad range of items contained on a phone even though people would be unlikely to carry such a variety of information in physical form, and would launch courts on a difficult line-drawing expedition to determine which digital files are comparable to physical records. Pp. 22–25.

(d) It is true that this decision will have some impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. But the Court’s holding is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is that a warrant is generally required before a search. The warrant requirement is an important component of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, and warrants may be obtained with increasing efficiency. In addition, although the search incident to arrest exception does not apply to cell phones, the continued availability of the exigent circumstances exception may give law enforcement a justification for a warrantless search in particular cases. Pp. 25–27.

No. 13–132, reversed and remanded; No. 13–212, 728 F. 3d 1, affirmed."