Statement of Facts:
This was a consolidated case of David Leon Riley, Petitioner v. California; United States, Petitioner v. Brima Wurie, pertaining similar issues of warrantless cell phone searches incident to arrest. In the first case, the petitioner David Leon Riley had been stopped by police officers for a traffic violation. The police searched Riley’s incident to an arrest and seized a Smartphone from his pocket. At the same .time, while carrying an inventory search of the vehicle, they discovered two handguns under the vehicle’s hood, thus prompting his arrest. While under their custody, the police went forth to carry a search on the data stored in the Riley’s phone without a warrant. The search yielded information that linked Riley’s membership to the Lincoln Park gang, and evidence that positively linked him to a gang shooting that was still under investigation. The evidence was used in the first trial and on retrial. As result, Riley was being convicted and the California Court of Appeal affirmed this decision.
The second consolidated case involved Brima Wurie (defendant) whose cell phone had been seized by police from his person incident to an arrest of an apparent drug sale. After arriving to the police station, his phone started to receive from multiple calls indicated as ‘my house’ as identified from the phone’s external screen. The police went ahead to access its call log, traced the number displayed as ‘my house’ to what they suspected to have been Wurie’s apartment. After securing a search warrant for the house their search resulted to a catch of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, 215 grams of crack cocaine, a firearm, ammunition and cash. Wurie later filed a case to suppress the evidence gotten from his apartment owing to the fact that it had resulted from a warrantless search on his phone. However, the district court had denied the motion and had convicted Wurie. On further appeal, the First Circuit reversed the denial of the motion, subsequently vacating the relevant convictions.
There are two issues in this case,
1. Were the evidences from Riley’s cell phone acquired through the searching process that is violated his Fourth Amendment right being admitted?
2. Are warrantless cell phone searches to arrest lawful or not?
Holding: Without a warrant, the police may not be able to search digital information on a portable device seized from an individual who has been arrested, whether at the point of arrest or in another location.
1. A warrantless search is only reasonable if it is within the specified exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirements of a warrant. The specific exception covers the applicability of warrantless search conducted incident to a lawful arrest.
In this case, such a warrant is only justified by officers’ safety interests or while seeking to prevent potential evidence destruction. Data on a suspect’s cell phone cannot physically harm an officer.
1. Warrantless search of cell phones implicates substantial greater risk of intruding upon an individual’s privacy. In this case, digital data is involved, more substantial privacy interest of an individual are at stake. Further owing to the nature in which digital data is stored, search of evidence on cell phones may extend beyond the physical proximity of an arrestee, thus the need for police officers to acquire a search warrant.
In a unanimous decision delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court held that police require warrants to search individual’s cell phones even if it was an incident to a lawful arrest. It was held that warrantless search can only applied following specific exceptions which are; for the purpose of protecting officer safety and preserving evidence or protecting it from being destroyed. It followed the judges argument that digital data found on cell phones cannot be used as a weapon to physically harm an officer carrying out the arrest. The court also characterized cell phones as microcomputers that are used to store massive private information, thus presenting a case where an arrestee’ right of privacy might be violated. However, the court also held that some warrantless searches might be permitted in case of emergency; where government’s interests are compelling, thus making a search reasonable.
Concurring Opinion Reasoning:
Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr presented a concurring opinion where he concurred in part and in judgment. His opinion was in agreement with the Supreme Court’s decision that law enforcement officers ought to obtain a search warrant before searching and obtaining information from an arrestee’s phone. He argued that the rule used in the predigital era that seemingly supported warrantless search based on the ideas of officer safety and the preservation of evidence, should not be applied in today’s digital era. According to Justice Alito, warrantless searches on cell phones would violate on an individual’s privacy interests. He further observed that law enforcement officers need clear rules on searches incident to arrest. He suggested the need for the legislature to enact laws that will clearly say as to when a cell phone can be searched following an arrest.
I am of the opinion that the Supreme Court made the right decision on this case. No none should be above the law, and a suspect or arrestee should not be treated like a guilty person. As such, police officers ought to follow the law and obtain a search warrant for cell phone searches unless it there is threat to their safety or possibility of evidence destruction.