The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that law enforcement cannot search through the data on a person’s cell phone without a warrant. Instead, the Court held that cell phones contain more personal information than any other object a person could have on their person and are protected from warrantless searches.
The ruling stems from two cases that were brought before the Court, Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie that involved different circumstances, but were based on evidence from an individual’s phone leading to additional charges against them and resulting in court convictions.
In the first case, David Riley was stopped by a police officer for driving with expired registration tags. During the stop, the officer also learned that Riley’s license had been suspended and he impounded Riley’s car and searched it. The officer found two hand guns during the search and Riley was arrested for possession of concealed and loaded firearms.
During his arrest, another officer searched Riley and seized his cell phone, a smart phone. The officer then accessed information on the phone and noticed that some of the words stood for “Crip Killers,” a slang term for members of the Bloods gang. Riley was then taken to the station where a detective went through his phone looking for evidence because “gang members will often video themselves with guns or take pictures of themselves with the guns.”
The detective found videos of men fighting on the phone and also photographs of Riley standing in front of a car that police suspected had been involved in a shooting a few weeks earlier.
Riley was ultimately charged with firing at an occupied vehicle, assault with a semiautomatic firearm, and attempted murder. Before the trial, Riley attempted to have the evidence from his cellphone suppressed. He said the searches of his phone violated the Fourth Amendment, which prevents “unreasonable searches and seizures,” because they had been conducted without a warrant and were not justified given the circumstances of his initial contact with police. The court rejected his argument and the evidence was used during the trial where he was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In the second case, a police officer observed Brima Wurie making what appeared to be a drug sale from a car. Officers then arrested Wurie, took him to the police station, and seized two cell phones that were in his possession. One of the phones was a flip-phone and five to 10 minutes after arriving at the station, the officers noticed that the phone was repeatedly receiving calls from a caller identified as “my house.”
A few minutes later, the officers opened the phone and saw a photograph of a woman and a baby set as the phone’s wallpaper. They pressed one button on the phone to access its call log, then another button to determine the phone number associated with the “my phone” caller. They then used that number to find the source, a phone number from an apartment building.
When officers went to the building, they saw Wurie’s name on a mailbox and saw through a window a woman who resembled the woman in the photograph on Wurie’s phone. They then obtained a search warrant, searched the apartment, and seized 215 grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a firearm and ammunition, and cash.
Wurie was then charged with distributing crack cocaine, possessing crack cocaine with intent to distribute, and being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. He also moved to suppress the evidence obtained from searching his apartment, arguing that it was revealed because of an unconstitutional search of his cell phone. The court denied the motion and Wurie was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to 262 months in prison.
Through a series of court proceedings, the cases eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments separately but issued a joint opinion on them. In a unanimous ruling, the Court ruled in favor of Riley and Wurie. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts said that modern cell phones are “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,” and are based on technology that was nearly inconceivable 10 years ago.
Because of this, cell phones “place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals” and “officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting” a search of a person’s smart phone, Roberts wrote. He also held that there is no need for law enforcement to search a cell phone as it does not present a danger to officers.
“Digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape,” Roberts wrote. “Law enforcement officers remain free to examine the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon—say, to determine whether there is a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case. Once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, however, data on the phone can endanger no one.”