U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Requires Search Warrant for Cell Phones

Supreme CourtWhat constitutes an individual’s “right to privacy” in the digital realm has become a topic of heated debate across the U.S. Following the reveal of government programs that monitor, record, and store Americans’ digital communications, there has been a widespread demand to strengthen laws that protect rights to privacy, both online and on the phone. These demands have been especially strong within the law enforcement realm – sans official laws that protect suspects’ rights to privacy, officers are able to seize and analyze private cell phones without prior consent from the suspect or the state legal system. The information taken can be, and has been, used to incriminate suspects for other offenses.

Yesterday, however, the Supreme Court put a stop to the seizure of cell phone information and took a giant step forward in reinforcing individuals’ privacy rights. In the final ruling on No. 13-132, Riley v. California, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that “the police may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. […] A warrantless search is reasonable only if it falls within a specific exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.”

This ruling follows cases from two separate petitioners: Petitioner Riley of No. 13-132 and Petitioner Wurie of No. 13-212. The men in both cases were arrested for one crime but, following a search of their cell phones seized during their arrest, were charged for another. Riley was stopped in 2009 for a traffic violation, arrested, searched, and stripped of his cell phone. The information in his phone was then used to incriminate him in a gang shooting that had occurred a few weeks before. Wurie was arrested in 2007 for allegedly participating in a drug sale, and his phone was also confiscated. The information from Wurie’s phone was used to obtain a search warrant to search his home, which resulted in additional drug and firearm charges. Both men appealed these rulings to the Supreme Court.

For more information and resources on individuals’ rights to privacy in this capacity, check out the HSDL “Featured Topics” list, Electronic Surveillance. [Login required] 

Article formerly posted at https://www.hsdl.org/blog/newpost/view/supreme-court-ruling-requires-search-warrant-for-cell-phones