Riley v. California: Police Required to Get Warrant to Search Cell Phone

In Riley v. California (2014), the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that the Fourth Amendment requires police officers to obtain a search warrant before searching a cell phone.

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.
— Riley v. California (2014)

In the Riley case, Appellant, David Riley, was stopped for driving with expired registration tags. Further investigation revealed that Riley's license was suspended, and he was arrested. Riley's vehicle was impounded and inventoried. The officers found handguns and evidence that Riley was a member of a street gang.

A cellular phone was also seized from Riley. The police then had a detective who specialized in gang activity search Riley's phone. The detective found evidence believed to link Riley to an earlier shooting, and Riley was charged with, among other things, attempted murder.

At trial, the evidence obtained from the cell phone was allowed by the court, and Riley was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. The California Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and the admission of the cell phone evidence. The California Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The US Supreme Court accepted the case, and held, "Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simpleget a warrant."

The Court recognized the potential problem for law enforcement, writing:

We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.

However, the Court ultimately decided the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to cell phones:

Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.

The exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's protections are many, and courts are increasingly unwilling to rule evidence inadmissible. The Riley case, however, reminds us that Fourth Amendment is alive and well.

If you or a loved one has been arrested, and you believe it was the result of an unreasonable search or seizure, call our firm today. We can help.