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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Thursday, June 26, 2014

SCOTUS Unanimous that Cops Cannot Access Cell Phone Data Without Warrant

By: Timothy P. Flynn

Fresh off the press from yesterday's announced decision: the 4th Amendment warrant requirement means something after all.  In Riley v California, a case we've been tracking here at the Law Blogger, SCOTUS held that without a warrant, the police cannot seize the digital data contained in an arrestee's cell phone.

California college student and convicted gang member, David Riley, had the misfortune of having a routine "tail light" stop turn into a 15-to life weapons-n-[attempted] murder-related sentence.  Now SCOTUS has reversed that sentence in a unanimous opinion that injects new life into the 4th Amendment's search and seizure clause.

The traffic stop led to the discovery that Riley's drivers license was suspended.  When law enforcement makes an arrest, the practice of conducting a search incident to that arrest is one of the exceptions to the 4th Amendment's warrant requirement.  Well, in Riley's case, that search led to the discovery of guns in the trunk.

The cops also located Riley's cell phone in the car from which they promptly extracted digital data in its entirety.  Think for a moment about the kind of data that lies buried within your cell phone.

In Riley's case, over his objection, the cell phone data suggested to the jury that Riley may have ran with a gang, and that he knew some things about the attempted gang hit for which he was being prosecuted.  

Legal scholar Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog summarized the High Court decision much better than we ever could:
Treating modern cellphones as gaping windows into nearly all aspects of the user’s life and private conduct, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ordered police to get a search warrant before examining the contents of any such device they take from a person they have arrested.  Seeing an individual with a cellphone  is such a common thing today, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., wrote, “the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”
The Court rejected every argument made to it by prosecutors and police that officers should be free to inspect the contents of any cellphone taken from an arrestee.  It left open just one option for such searches without a court order:  if police are facing a dire emergency, such as trying to locate a missing child or heading off a terrorist plot.  But even then, it ruled, those “exigent” exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant would have to satisfy a judge after the fact.
The ruling was such a sweeping embrace of digital privacy that it even reached remotely stored private information that can be reached by a hand-held device — as in the modern-day data storage “cloud.”  And it implied that the tracking data that a cellphone may contain about the places that an individual visited also is entitled to the same shield of privacy.
We here at the Law Blogger heartily agree with this unanimous decision.  We walk around with our private lives attached, literally to our hip, or our ear, or our belt.  Cell phones are miniature personal computers, and should be imbued with some modicum of privacy relative to law enforcement.

If the data is needed to prove criminal conduct, then an old fashioned warrant must be secured.  From their landmark graves, our Founding Father's would agree.

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