POSTED BY Caroline Carollo
Although we are living in the age of technology, there are still many unanswered questions as to how certain forms of technology fit within the legal world. Specifically, there is not a clear answer as to whether Fourth Amendment protections apply to one’s personal technology devices, such as cell phones and computers. However, it looks like we are finally going to be getting some answers. On April 29, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases involving whether the police may search the contents of a cell phone seized incident to the lawful arrest of a criminal suspect.
In the first case, United States v. Wurie, Boston police officers arrested Brima Wurie for possession of crack cocaine after they observed him make a sale to another person. Mr. Wurie was searched and the police recovered two cellphones. While he was being booked, one of the cellphones, a Verizon LG flip phone, received various calls from someone under the name “my house.” Without obtaining a warrant, the police officers went through the call log on the cellphone and obtained the phone number that called from “my house.” The officers were then able to get the address associated with that phone number through an online directory. Although Mr. Wurie denied living at that address, the police believed he did live there and suspected that they would find a larger amount of crack cocaine there. When they arrived at this address, they saw a mailbox with Mr. Wurie’s name on it as well as a woman through the window that closely resembled the woman featured as the background picture on Mr. Wurie’s cell phone. The officers obtained a search warrant for the house and found 215 grams of crack cocaine and other contraband.
Mr. Wurie filed a motion to suppress the cell phone search, but a federal district court denied his motion. As a result, Mr. Wurie was convicted and sentenced to 262 months in prison. On appeal, a panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that evidence obtained in connection with the warrantless search of the cell phone should have been suppressed. The court looked at U.S. v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 235-36 (1973), where the Court held that officers conducting a search incident to arrest may open and search through all items on the suspect, even when they are in a closed container. However, the 1st Circuit distinguished a cell phone from a purse or address book, arguing that the former is like a computer and contains information of a highly personal nature. Thus, the court held that warrantless cell phone searches were unlawful under the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment.
In the second cell phone case that the Supreme Court will hear, Riley v. California, David Leon Riley was pulled over by police officers for having expired tags. The officers discovered that Mr. Riley’s license was expired, and they impounded his car. Two guns were discovered during the inventory search of the car, and Mr. Riley was subsequently arrested. The police seized Mr. Riley’s cell phone, a Samsung smartphone, and conducted two warrantless searches of it. The first search occurred at the scene, where police went through the cell phone’s contents and believed that some words in the text messages and contacts were gang-related. The officers conducted the second search at the police station hours later. A gang unit detective searched the cell phone looking for evidence of other crimes and discovered photos and videos suggesting that Mr. Riley was a gang member. The detective also discovered a photograph linking Mr. Riley to a shooting that had recently occurred.
Mr. Riley was charged with attempted murder, and he was convicted based mainly on circumstantial evidence found in the photos. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison due to gang-related sentencing enhancements. Prior to the ruling in Mr. Riley’s case, the California Supreme Court held in People v. Diaz, 244 P.3d 501, 505-06 (2011) that the Fourth Amendment’s search-incident-to-arrest doctrine allowed police to search cell phones, even hours later, if the phone had been taken from the person of the arrestee. A state appellate court held that the Diaz decision controlled Mr. Riley’s case and the police searches of Mr. Riley’s cell phone were legal.
Courts have previously held that law enforcement officers are allowed to search an individual’s person and effects when they place them under arrest. Nevertheless, modern cell phones enable access to a significant amount of personal data, most of which is unrelated to the government’s reason for securing an arrestee. I believe that allowing police officers to conduct a warrantless search of a person’s cell phone following an arrest would be a substantial infringement on privacy and unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Furthermore, warrantless searches are unnecessary when there are procedures available that allow law enforcement to secure cell phone data while waiting for a judicial determination of probable cause.
In regards to what the Court will decide, I do not believe the Court will hold that all warrantless, nonconsensual cell phone searches are unreasonable. I also do not believe that the Court will hold that all searches of such devices are reasonable if conducted incident to a lawful arrest. Instead, I believe the Court will utilize a totality of the circumstances, case-by-case approach. Such an approach would balance the degree of intrusion on an arrestee’s privacy interest against the government’s justification for conducting the warrantless search.