Supreme Court rules smartphone searches require warrant

Supreme Court rules smartphone searches require warrant

Summary: In the contentious, long-running court case of Riley vs. California, the SCOTUS ruled cellphones and smartphones cannot be searched by police without a warrant during arrests.

TOPICS: Government
Image via CNET

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.


Topic: Government

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  • Police can't search a smartphone after arresting a suspect .. However ..

    The NSA can search any smartphone they like. Which only goes to prove the FICA court is superior to SCOTUS.
    • Must it

      Must this red herring be posting everywhere?
      Buster Friendly
    • Off topic

      Though it might well be the case that this ruling will held to apply to the NSA as well. And FISC is not superior to the Supreme Court; its members, after all, are District Court judges designated by the Chief Justice for a term of years. US Supreme Court precedent is binding on *all* federal courts, including FISC, and that's been true since 1789.
      John L. Ries
    • Not the Same Thing

      The NSA actions are covered by the Patriot Act. The police actions are not. The NSA is not going into your phone. They are getting telephone records. The police can do the same with a warrant. Some of us still believe 9/11 was just a ruse to eliminate parts of the constitutional protections by passing the Patriot Act.
  • Bet this decision doesn't apply

    to Homeland Security.
    Homeland Security quietly released a strangely worded document reaffirming their own right to search and seize your electronics without suspicion or cause, anywhere along the United States border (which they define as 100 miles in from the border)

    Which means, for instance, that anyone in the State of Florida, all of which is within 100 miles of a boarder, is subject to having their equipment seized and searched by the government without a warrant.
    • Homeland Security...

      ...doesn't get to say how court precedents apply. Only subsequent case law will determine that.
      John L. Ries
  • The one thing I admire about Chief Justice Roberts... his ability to forge consensus. The numbers of unanimous decisions appear to be way up from the Rehnquist years, and the fact that eight of nine Justices could completely sign off on a Fourth Amendment opinion (almost always a contentious issue among the Justices) he wrote is quite impressive (and the ninth concurred in part with the opinion and concurred in the judgement).
    John L. Ries