Riley v. California, No. 13–132, 573 U. S. (2014)- U.S. Supreme Court’s Case On Search Of Cell Phone Of An Arrested Person Without Warrant

PRAVEEN DALAL MANAGING PARTNER OF PERRY4LAW AND CEO OF PTLBUnited State has been struggling hard to deal with issues of E-Surveillance and Eavesdropping for long.  The truth is that many of the E-Surveillance Programs of U.S. are “Simply Unconstitutional” and they cannot pass the test of Constitutionality. Telephone Tapping and Surveillance are on top priority of U.S. Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agencies. In fact, U.S. Government sought an order from FISA Court for extended storage of telephone metadata and call records.

After Edward Snowden’s revelations, even the White House has limited and difficult options to restructure National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program. Meanwhile, U.S. Courts have started strengthening Privacy Rights of U.S. citizens’ vis-à-vis their cell phones. For instance, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that phone users have Reasonable Expectation of Privacy. Similarly, the Texas Appeals Court has ruled that Law Enforcement Officials do need a Warrant to search an arrested person’s cell phone after they’ve been jailed.

Now U.S. Supreme Court has endorsed the approach of Texas Court. In Riley v. California, No. 13–132, 573 U. S. (2014) (PDF), the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Police generally may not, without a warrant, search “Digital Information” on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. The Court further held that a warrantless search is reasonable only if it falls within a spe­cific exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. A search incident to arrest must be limited to the area within the arrestee’s immediate control, where it is justified by the interests in officer safety and in preventing evidence destruc­tion.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to extend the categorical rule laid down by United States v. Robinson, 414 U. S. 218 decision to searches of data stored on cell phones. It observed that the Court generally determines whether to ex­empt a given type of search from the warrant requirement “by as­sessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an in­dividual’s Privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of Legitimate Governmental Interests”. That balance of interests supported the search incident to arrest exception in Robinson. But a search of digital information on a cell phone does not further the government interests identified in Chimel v. California, 395 U. S. 752 and implicates substantially greater individual Privacy interests than a brief physical search. Thus, the digital data stored on cell phones does not present either Chimel risk.

The Court further held that 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. Officers may examine the phone’s physical aspects to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, but the data on the phone can endanger no one. To the extent that a search of cell phone data might warn officers of an impending danger, e.g., that the arrestee’s confederates are headed to the scene, such a concern is better ad­dressed through consideration of case-specific exceptions to the war­rant requirement, such as exigent circumstances.

The United States and California raise concerns about the destruction of evidence, arguing that, even if the cell phone is physi­cally secure, information on the cell phone remains vulnerable to re­mote wiping and data encryption. The Court did not agree with those arguments and held that as an initial matter, those broad concerns are distinct from Chimel’s focus on a defendant who re­sponds to arrest by trying to conceal or destroy evidence within his reach. The briefing also gives little indication that either problem is prevalent or that the opportunity to perform a search incident to ar­rest would be an effective solution. And, at least as to remote wiping, law enforcement currently has some technologies of its own for combating the loss of evidence. Finally, law enforcement’s remaining concerns in a particular case might be addressed by responding in a targeted manner to urgent threats of remote wiping or by taking action to disable a phone’s locking mechanism in order to secure the scene.

The Court held that a conclusion that inspecting the contents of an arrestee’s pockets works no substantial additional intrusion on Privacy beyond the arrest itself may make sense as applied to physical items, but more substantial privacy interests are at stake when digital data is involved. Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s per­son. Notably, modern cell phones have an immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical reali­ties and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on Privacy.

But cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pic­tures, or hundreds of videos. This has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. Third, data on the phone can date back for years. In addition, an el­ement of pervasiveness characterizes cell phones but not physical records. A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.

The scope of the Privacy interests at stake is further com­plicated by the fact that the data viewed on many modern cell phones may in fact be stored on a remote server. Thus, a search may extend well beyond papers and effects in the physical proximity of an ar­restee, a concern that the United States recognizes but cannot defini­tively foreclose. Thus, the fallback options offered by the United States and California are flawed and contravene this Court’s (See Michigan v. Summers, 452 U. S. 692, 705, n. 19) general preference to provide clear guidance to law enforcement through categorical rules.

One possible rule is to import the Gant standard from the vehicle context and allow a warrantless search of an arrestee’s cell phone whenever it is reason­able to believe that the phone contains evidence of the crime of ar­rest. That proposal is not appropriate in this context, and would prove no practical limit at all when it comes to cell phone searches. Another possible rule is to restrict the scope of a cell phone search to information relevant to the crime, the arrestee’s identity, or officer safety. That proposal would again impose few meaningful con­straints on officers. Finally, California suggests an analogue rule, under which officers could search cell phone data if they could have obtained the same information from a pre-digital counterpart. That proposal would allow law enforcement to search a broad range of items contained on a phone even though people would be unlikely to carry such a variety of information in physical form, and would launch Courts on a difficult line-drawing expedition to determine which digital files are comparable to physical records.

U.S. Supreme Court also acknowledged that it is true that this decision will have some impact on the ability of Law Enforcement to combat crime. But the Court’s holding is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is that a warrant is generally required before a search. The warrant re­quirement is an important component of the Court’s Fourth Amend­ment jurisprudence, and warrants may be obtained with increasing efficiency. In addition, although the search incident to arrest excep­tion does not apply to cell phones, the continued availability of the ex­igent circumstances exception may give law enforcement a justifica­tion for a warrantless search in particular cases.