Digital privacy, specifically as it pertains to information accessible on a person's mobile phone, was the central issue in the contentious, long-running court case of Riley vs. California — which came to a conclusion Wednesday when the Supreme Court finally made a ruling.
The nation's highest court ruled unanimously that cellphones and smartphones generally cannot be searched by police without a warrant during arrests.
The decision stems from a petition brought by David Leon Riley, a Massachusetts man who was arrested in 2007 for allegedly selling drugs from his car. His cell phone was seized and in police custody when information was found on the device that linked Riley to gang-related crimes.
Riley was ultimately detained and convicted. But he appealed, claiming that accessing the information, which was used as evidence that resulted in his conviction, was unlawful under the Fourth Amendment.
As part of the Supreme Court's ruling, Chief Justice Roberts focused on the police department's defense of its actions and whether it was legitimate cause for accessing the phone before seeking a judicial warrant.
Riley conceded, and the court agreed, that the officers could have seized and secured his cell phone to prevent evidence destruction while seeking a warrant — in spite of police claiming the delay would make the device vulnerable to remote wiping and data encryption.
To that point, the court noted:
We have been given little reason to believe that either problem is prevalent. Moreover, in situations in which an arrest might trigger a remote wipe attempt or an officer discovers an unlocked phone, it is not clear that the ability to conduct a warrantless search would make much of a difference.
In the end, the justices noted that smartphones, and the sensitive data they contain, differentiate them from other evidence that can lawfully be searched without warrant.
We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Privacy comes at a cost.