Update in Riley vs. California Cell Phone Privacy Case

In our last newsletter we outlined some of the ongoing privacy litigation that was underway and specifically cited the Riley vs. California case that was still being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 25, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark decision regarding the Riley vs. California case.


David Leon Riley was arrested on August 22, 2009, after a traffic stop resulted in the discovery of loaded firearms in his car. The officers took Riley’s phone and searched through his messages, contacts, videos, and photographs. Based in part on the data stored on Riley’s phone, the officers charged him with an unrelated shooting that had taken place several weeks prior to his arrest. The lower courts all found that the search conducted by the San Diego Police Department was constitutional and the case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

On June 25, 2014 the Supreme Court weighed in with a unanimous decision regarding cellphone privacy. In short, the court found that police need search warrants to search cellphones of the people they arrest. The ruling will likely apply to tablets and laptops as well and is considered a major victory for privacy advocates.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that modern cell phones “implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet or a purse.” Roberts went on to say, “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ 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.”

The unanimous decision does not mean that all cellphone searches will end, it just requires that an individual consent to a search or the court must issue a search warrant first. Roberts and the Supreme Court realize that this ruling could have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime, however, Roberts also wrote, “privacy comes at a cost.”

Roberts also cited one of the driving forces of the American Revolution as the ability of British officers to conduct indiscriminate searches of homes without a search warrant. The Court likened these warrantless searches by the British to warrantless searches of cellphones and said that these old principles applied to the new technology. Roberts wrote, “A cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house. A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form—unless the phone is.”

The debate will likely continue as technology continues to advance and personal information is stored in more and more places, however, American citizens should be comforted by the fact that some of the original principles the country was founded on are alive and well in today’s modern world.