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Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie (U.S. Sup. Ct.)

Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie were cases with important implications for the scope of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.  They both raised the question whether, and under what circumstances, the police may conduct a warrantless search of a person’s cell phone upon that person’s arrest.  When petitioner David Riley was arrested, police officers seized his cell phone and performed two separate searches of the phone in the absence of a warrant and exigent circumstances, first at the scene of the arrest and then hours later at the police station.  Respondent Brima Wurie’s cell phone was also searched following his arrest even though there were no exigent circumstances and the police did not have a warrant.  While the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that the search of Mr. Wurie’s phone violated the Fourth Amendment, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision in Mr. Riley’s case to uphold the searches of his phone.

On August 30, 2013, Constitutional Accountability Center filed an amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court in support of Mr. Riley’s Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, and on January 17, 2014, the Court agreed to review Riley, as we had urged. The Court also agreed to hear the government’s appeal in Wurie.  On March 10, 2014, CAC filed a merits-stage amicus curiae brief in support of both Mr. Riley and Mr. Wurie.

In our merits-stage brief, we urged the Supreme Court to hold that warrantless searches of a person’s cell phone upon that person’s arrest fundamentally contradict constitutional text and history.  The Fourth Amendment broadly protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and also provides that warrants that do not specifically describe the place to be searched, or the persons or things to be seized, should not be issued. When the Framers adopted the Fourth Amendment, they were responding, in large part, to the British use of “general warrants” and “writs of assistance.”  These writs and warrants lacked any specificity about the people or items to be searched and were not predicated on any individualized suspicion.  Essentially unlimited in scope, these warrants and writs provided the officers executing them virtually unfettered discretion to engage in broad searches of a person’s home and the personal papers and effects in that home.  As we detailed in our brief, the Framers drafted the text of the Fourth Amendment in order to protect citizens against such broad, generalized searches, and to strip the government of the arbitrary power to rifle through a person’s belongings in the hope of finding something incriminating. 

The practice permitted by the lower courts in Riley plainly violated this fundamental Fourth Amendment precept.  Although the police may sometimes conduct warrantless searches after a lawful arrest, the traditional justifications for such searches were not present in either Riley or Wurie.  Moreover, because modern cell phones generally contain vast stores of information, including private communications and photographs, the intrusion into an individual’s privacy when police rummage through the contents of a smart phone is substantial.  Thus, permitting law enforcement officers to look through the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant and in the absence of recognized exigent circumstances invites the police to engage in the same sort of generalized searches that the Framers despised—and adopted the Fourth Amendment to prevent.

The Court heard oral argument in Riley and Wurie on April 29, 2014.  On June 25, 2014, in perhaps the most important privacy ruling of the digital age, the Court unanimously held that law enforcement officers in general are not permitted to search cell phones incident to arrest without a warrant.  Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court in a broad and sweeping opinion, concluded that modern cell phones “differ in both a quantitative and qualitative sense” from other objects that an arrestee might be carrying and thus “implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of other objects.”  Echoing CAC’s brief, the Court recognized that “the Fourth Amendment was the founding generation’s response to the ‘general warrants’ and writs of assistance’ of the colonial era,” and “[t]he 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.”

CAC’s reaction to the Court’s ruling is here.