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Supreme Court Rules In San Diego Case That Cops Can’t Routinely Search Cellphones

Evening Edition

Aired 6/25/14 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Supreme Court Rules In San Diego Case That Cops Can't Routinely Search Cellphones


Alex Kreit, Associate Professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Pat Ford, is a San Diego attorney who represented defendant in case



Riley v. California Supreme Court Opinion

Riley v. California Supreme Court Opinion


— In a strong defense of digital age privacy, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police may not generally search the cellphones of people they arrest without first getting search warrants. The decision stems from a San Diego attempted murder case.

Cellphones are powerful devices unlike anything else police may find on someone they arrest, Chief Justice John Roberts said for the court. Because the phones contain so much information, police must get a warrant before looking through them, Roberts said.

"Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life," Roberts said.

The court chose not to extend earlier rulings that allow police to empty a suspect's pockets and examine whatever they find to ensure officers' safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.

The Obama administration and the state of California, defending the cellphone searches, said cellphones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find.

But the defendants in these cases, backed by civil libertarians, librarians and news media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, are increasingly powerful computers that can store troves of sensitive personal information.

In the cases decided Wednesday, the San Diego defendant carried a smartphone, while the other carried an older flip phone.

Roberts said the comparison to packages of cigarettes and other items that were at issue in the earlier cases is not apt.

A ride on horseback and a flight to the moon both "are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together," he said.

Authorities concerned about the destruction of evidence can take steps to prevent the remote erasure of a phone's contents or the activation of encryption, Roberts said.

One exception to the warrant requirement left open by the decision is a case in which officers reasonably fear for their safety or the lives of others.

The two cases arose following arrests in San Diego and Boston.

In San Diego, police found indications of gang membership when they looked through defendant David Leon Riley's Samsung smartphone. Prosecutors used video and photographs found on the smartphone to persuade a jury to convict Riley of attempted murder and other charges. California courts rejected Riley's efforts to throw out the evidence and upheld the convictions.

The court ordered the California Supreme Court to take a new look at Riley's case.

In Boston, a federal appeals court ruled that police must have a warrant before searching arrestees' cellphones.

Police arrested Brima Wurie on suspicion of selling crack cocaine, checked the call log on his flip phone and used that information to determine where he lived. When they searched Wurie's home and had a warrant, they found crack, marijuana, a gun and ammunition. The evidence was enough to produce a conviction and a prison term of more than 20 years.

The appeals court ruled for Wurie, but left in place a drug conviction for selling cocaine near a school that did not depend on the tainted evidence. That conviction also carried a 20-year sentence. The administration appealed the court ruling because it wants to preserve the warrantless searches following arrest.

The justices upheld that ruling.


Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 25, 2014 at 10:12 a.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago

I have to say, this restores a bit of my pessimism in the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

After a rash of hideous decisions allowing elections in our country to be bought and sold, it's reassuring that the justices still seem to have a zest for privacy rights and checks and balances within our law enforcement agencies.

I'm particularly happy that this was a unanimous decision.

Privacy rights and an over-reach by power-hoarding government agencies should be something both people on the left AND right should be concerned with.

Today we have a victory for citizens of the United States to have proper checks and balances in place and to not have our constitutional rights trampled and violated by the out of control prison industrial complex/law enforcement bureaucracy that have been amassing unprecedented power in recent years.

Shame on the Obama administration and the State of California for defending such practices - you know better than that. The Obama administration has RIGHTLY complained about inequalities within law enforcement that disproportionately impact the poor and minorities. It seems counter-intuitive to me that an administration that has acknowledged severe flaws in our current system would then argue for even more free reign for these admittedly flawed agencies to engage in search and seizure of American citizens without a court warrant.

Thanks you to ALL the justices who saw this for what it was: An unconstitutional, over-reaching power grab by the prison industrial complex.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 25, 2014 at 10:13 a.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago

restores a bit of optimism I should say :)

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Avatar for user 'sdreefer21'

sdreefer21 | June 25, 2014 at 11:35 a.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago

If you are a known gang member and criminal I really think your cellphone should be searchable without a warrant. Especially if caught during the commission of a crime. I do see the larger law abiding population who this law protects to be an ok thing. I really don't care if anyone looks through my cellphone.

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Avatar for user 'Mmikey'

Mmikey | June 25, 2014 at 12:09 p.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago

it won't keep them from asking permission to search it, or some kind of bogus reason you should let them. such as you will be held until they can get a warrant.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 25, 2014 at 12:15 p.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago


"Exceptions" to constitutional rights to search and seizure ultimately destroy the constitutional rights of everyone.

These checks and balances are put into place for a reason, to keep law enforcement from over-reaching their authority.

Based on the courts decisions, both very liberal and very conservative constitutional scholars were in agreement that allowing warrantless searches of cell phones violates constitutional rights.

The people fighting against this decision were the people who wanted the power - the government and law enforcement agencies.

That should tell you something right there.

Incrementally eroding these checks and balances leads to a corrupt and abusive law enforcement agencies.

Cell phones can still be searched, you just need a judge to sign-off on it.

I don't see the problem with that.

The job of law enforcement is to act on warrants or to detain/ticket someone when they see a law being violated so that person can then have a court find the person guilty or innocent.

It's not up to the police to decide innocence or guilt.

We need these protections in place, and I salute this decision. I completely agree with Roberts and Scalia on this matter.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | June 25, 2014 at 2:24 p.m. ― 2 years, 1 month ago

SDREEFER, how about homicide suspects? Rapists? Child molestors? Only "gang members"??? Why ONLY gang members??? Are somehow "gang members" at a lower moral level than any of the aforementioned??? What does SDREEFER REALLY mean by . . . "gang member"?

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Avatar for user 'sdreefer21'

sdreefer21 | June 26, 2014 at 6:48 a.m. ― 2 years ago

Well when you choose to ignore the comstitution by breaking the laws it governs You are creating an exception that only benefits yourself. Im ok with their being exceptions.

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Avatar for user 'sdreefer21'

sdreefer21 | June 26, 2014 at 6:48 a.m. ― 2 years ago

Well when you choose to ignore the constitution by breaking the laws it governs you are creating an exception that only benefits yourself. Im ok with their being exceptions.

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Avatar for user 'Eddie89'

Eddie89 | June 26, 2014 at 8:27 a.m. ― 2 years ago

I am extremely surprised that the majority on the U.S. Supreme Court actually voted in favor of civil rights.

Great news!

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | June 26, 2014 at 8:47 a.m. ― 2 years ago

PDSD "Privacy rights and an over-reach by power-hoarding government agencies should be something both people on the left AND right should be concerned with."

I absolutely agree. Please remember the importance of protection against overreach the next time we need to discuss other safeguards offered by the BoR against abusive government.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 26, 2014 at 9:04 a.m. ― 2 years ago

sdreefer I am not ok with there being any exceptions to the constitution. That is the foundation of our country and the boundaries it sets for our government must never be overstepped. There are legal forfeitures of fourth amendment rights for people with a criminal record called a fourth amendment waiver. What you describe is already in place. We do not need to leave matters of the constitution in the hands of a police officer who thinks someone might be in a gang.

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Avatar for user 'Thomas Turner'

Thomas Turner | June 27, 2014 at 7:41 a.m. ― 2 years ago

This shows how the Obama administration thinks. They are greedy power mongers who wish to remove most civil liberties and degrade our constitution. Keep watch, if up to Obama admin we would not have GPS either.
If the police feel that there is probable cause to search a phone then yes they need a warrant! it is not hard for them if needed. Police have no right to search through personal computers without a warrant. Retain our Civil Liberties !!! do not degrade our country any more.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 27, 2014 at 10:19 a.m. ― 2 years ago

Thomas Turner, I agree with you regarding the warrants, but this issue transcends administrations. This power-hoarding has been going on for decades, under both Democrat and Republican administrations. That doesn't make it right, of course, but when you say "this shows how the Obama administration thinks" show me one administration who DIDN'T think this way. Show me one ELECTABLE hopeful for 2016 in either party who has hailed this decision or who has said Snowden did the right thing, or who in general stands up for privacy rights.

This is why I say this can't be a partisan issue, because it's widespread in both parties.

The problem I have with the Democrats is that they don't seem to know how to separate government power into core governmental roles for the welfare of the people like healthcare, defense, and economic safety nets. They rightfully do stand up for these issues, but then they over-reach when it comes to police powers.

The problem I have with the Republicans is that they are disingenuous when they claim they want a "small government". They rail against the core governmental responsibilities I mentioned above that the Democrats champion and do so under the guise wanting "small gov.", but then they want endless wars, unlimited police powers, unlimited military spending, and unlimited prison-industrial complex powers and spending.

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