San Diego Case at Center of US Supreme Court Ruling that Bars Police Search of Cellphone Without Warrant

by on June 25, 2014 · 0 comments

in American Empire, Civil Rights, Culture, Media, San Diego

cell phone privacyA San Diego case is at the middle of a historic ruling today by the U.S. Supreme Court on privacy rights with regards to cell phones.

In unanimous vote, the Court ruled that police officers may not search a cell phone of a criminal suspect without a warrant.  Commentators called this “a big, big win for civil libertarians and privacy rights.”

The San Diego case was David Riley’s – and of the 2 cases before the Court – it attracted the most attention by the Justices.

Riley – a college student – had been arrested in 2009 for having an expired vehicle registration and driving with a suspended license.  His car was impounded, and police found loaded weapons under the hood.  Riley was arrested again.

This time police grabbed his smartphone and downloaded info from it. It contained text messages, contacts and video that made police think that Riley had organized crime connections. In addition, a photo of a second car owned by Riley was linked to adrive-by shooting.  Riley was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Yet, Riley’s smartphone was searched without a warrant.

His and another case from Massachusetts were both appealed to the Supreme Court. And by a 9-0 vote, the justices said smart phones and other electronic devices were not in the same category as other personal property items such as wallets, briefcases, and vehicles, which are currently subject to limited initial examination by law enforcement.

The justices stated in their ruling:

“The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant.”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion, and it stated that the right of police to search an arrested suspect at the scene without a warrant does not extend in most circumstances to data held on a cellphone. There are some emergency situations in which a warrantless search would be permitted, the court noted.

The ruling goes against law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, which wanted more latitude to search without having to obtain a warrant. Roberts said:

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. The right to privacy comes at a cost.” … 

“Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse. Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.”

Poll Shows 90% of Americans Own or Use Cellphones

A survey in January by Pew Research Center found “more than 90 percent of Americans now own or regularly use a cellphone, and 58 percent have a more sophisticated smartphone.”

Lower courts nationwide are divided over how to apply a 40-year-old high court precedent allowing searches of a suspect’s items after arrest. Home searches generally require warrants and are given greater constitutional protection than vehicles or a person in public.

The legal question was whether the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars unreasonable searches, requires police following an arrest to get court approval before a cellphone can be searched. The court decided the two cases together, finding that both searches were unconstitutional. The cases are Riley v. California, 13-132 and U.S. v. Wurie, 13-212.

Sources: CNN   Reuters



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