You and Your Cellphone After Riley v. California

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You and Your Cellphone After Riley v. California

There have been several important decisions handed down recently by the United States Supreme Court. One such case that has important implications in our current age of smartphones is Riley v. California. In this 9-0 opinion (that is, it was a unanimous decision) released on June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court decided that your smartphone and the information contained on it are deserving of Fourth Amendment protections.

Facts of Riley v. California

In Riley, the petitioner Riley was stopped for a traffic violation. He was eventually placed under arrest on various weapons-related charges. As Riley was being placed under arrest, police officers searched Riley and found a smartphone in his pants pocket. The arresting officer looked at the smartphone’s contents and saw some words preceded by the letters “CK,” which the officer believed stood for “Crip Killers,” a slang term for members of the Bloods gang.

Riley was taken to the police station where a detective specializing in gangs looked for evidence of Riley’s gang memberships. The detective looked at the phone’s contents, including pictures and videos. One picture depicted Riley standing in front of a car that the police believed was involved in a shooting a few weeks earlier.

Riley was charged with various offenses in connection with that earlier shooting. In addition, these crimes were alleged to have been committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang, which enhanced the penalties of Riley’s sentences. Prior to trial, Riley moved to suppress (“keep out”) the evidence the police found on his phone, arguing that the police had violated his Fourth Amendment rights in that they had not secured a warrant prior to searching his phone and there were no circumstances that justified looking at the phone without a warrant.

Riley’s motion was denied and he was convicted on three counts. He received an enhanced sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

The Main Issue in Riley

Riley appealed his conviction and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear his case. The main issue in his appeal was whether the contents of his smartphone were covered by the Fourth Amendment and thus protected against “unreasonable searches.” The government contended that searching a smartphone found on an arrestee’s person was similar to searching a person’s wallet, something police were already permitted to do when placing someone under arrest. Riley contended, however, that the information contained on a smartphone is extensive, and there is no “officer safety” threat posed by cellphone data.

The Supreme Court Extends Fourth Amendment Protections to Cellphone Data

The Supreme Court decided that during the course of arresting someone officers could continue to search the person’s body for threats to their safety. Police can even physically examine a smartphone to ensure it does not pose a threat to them (for instance, to make sure there is not a razor blade or other similar weapon hidden between the cellphone and its case). But data cannot harm officers. Because of this, the Supreme Court held that, in general, officers must obtain a warrant before they examine the contents of a smartphone.

What Riley Means for Criminal Defendants

Going forward, police must generally obtain a search warrant before they can examine the contents of a smartphone, including the phone’s contact list, recent calls, text message history, videos, photographs, and other similar data. Unless police are able to articulate an “exigent circumstance” (unusual circumstance) that makes waiting to get a warrant dangerous or impractical, police and prosecutors who examine smartphone or cellphone data and then try to rely on that discovered data at trial will likely find that they cannot use the illegally-obtained information. This can make the prosecution’s criminal case difficult – if not impossible – to prove.

Contact criminal defense attorney JohnPaul Ivec at Ivec Law P.C. today at (815) 439-9909 for a free consultation; or e-mail at JohnPaul Ivec is experienced in litigating criminal cases and will ensure your rights are protected. The government should not be allowed to use evidence that they obtained by breaking the law – Ivec Law, P.C. will hold the police and prosecutors accountable.