06/25/2014 01:27 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

Digital Privacy Rights Upheld in Landmark Cell Phone Case

Landmark Decision About Post Arrest Digital Searches
The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled today that police may not search information on an arrested suspect's cell phone without an additional search warrant. In two cases from both coasts, consolidated into a single opinion the Court held that the privacy interests in protecting the tremendous amount of personal information stored on cell phones outweighs the government's interest to its immediate access by police, even after a suspect is lawfully arrested.

The cases decided today forced the court to analyze a centuries old constitutional amendment in light of modern technological advances. Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, authored the opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court. Generally, police are given wide latitude to conduct warrantless searches of persons incident to lawful arrests to protect officer safety and prevent the destruction of evidence. Police may make these warrantless arrests if they have "probable cause" of a suspect's criminality.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution was ratified December 15, 1791 as part of a ten amendment addition known as the Bill of Rights. It holds:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Two Cases of Warrantless Data Searches
In Riley v. California, (13-132) police in San Diego seized and searched a defendant's cell phone following a traffic violation and subsequent arrest on weapons charges. After retrieving the cell phone from Riley's pocket police found phrases stored that were consistent with those used by street gangs. A detective at the police station a short time later recovered videos and photographs that led to charges related to an earlier shooting as well as sentencing enhancements for gang membership. Despite Riley's protest, he was convicted in state court, where he also lost a subsequent appeal on the admission of the cell phone evidence.

In a companion federal case, also decided today, United States v. Wurie, (13-212) the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of a Boston federal appeals court to throw out the conviction of a drug defendant whose apartment was searched in 2007 after Boston police obtained a premises search warrant from information obtained without a warrant from his flip open cell phone's call log.

Physical Possessions Are Distinguishable From Data & Communication
The Supreme Court held that prior cases giving police authority to conduct intensive physical searches of people and their belongings after an arrest do not extend to the digital information contained on cellphones. This is due to the quantitative and qualitative differences between these "minicomputers" that operate not only as phones, but as "cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers."

The Court pointed to prior cases, like Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 753-754 (1969) where it held that warrantless searches of an arrestee's person and immediate area were justified under the Fourth Amendment by the government's interest in protecting officer safety, as well as in the preservation of evidence:

When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape. Otherwise, the officer's safety might well be endangered, and the arrest itself frustrated. In addition, it is entirely reasonable for the arresting officer to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee's person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction.

In subsequent cases the Supreme Court extended its analysis to allow for searches of small unlocked packages like cigarette packs carried by a person, United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973). The court also allowed for immediate searches of the passenger compartment of vehicles for evidence of a crime, where an arrestee was inside, Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332. Other cases allowed for later post arrest inventory searches of vehicles to safeguard property found inside.

In Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967) the Supreme Court held that government eavesdropping of an unarrested suspect's pay phone conversations required a warrant, dismissing arguments about the lack of a physical intrusion of the booth. The new protection of cell phone information comes at a time of heightened public debate about the federal government's warrantless collection of phone call log data on a mass scale. That practice was not directly addressed in the Riley decision.

In Their Own Words
Still, with respect to cell phones the Court made an important distinction about the substantial privacy rights digital information, including phone logs, receives relative to other physical possessions:

These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy. A smart phone of the sort taken from Riley was unheard of ten years ago; a significant majority of American adults now own such phones.

The Court declined to extend the authority of police to conduct warrantless post arrest searches of physical items to digital evidence:

But while Robinson's categorical rule strikes the appropriate balance in the context of physical objects, neither of its rationales has much force with respect to digital content on cell phones. On the government interest side, Robinson concluded that the two risks identified in Chimel--harm to officers and destruction of evidence--are present in all custodial arrests. There are no comparable risks when the search is of digital data. In addition, Robinson regarded any privacy interests retained by an individual after arrest as significantly diminished by the fact of the arrest itself. Cell phones, however, place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals. A search of the information on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the type of brief physical search considered in Robinson.