Supreme Court: Police Can’t Search Cell Phones Without Warrant

 WASHINGTON, D.C. — (Mealey’s) The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from a person who has been arrested, the U.S. Supreme Court found today, ruling on two cases consolidated on appeal (David Leon Riley v. State of California, No. 13-132, United States v. Brima Wurie, No. 13-212, U.S. Sup.; See May 2014, Page 17) [ subscribers may access Supreme Court briefs and the opinion for this case].

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority that “a mechanical application of Robinson might well support the warrantless searches at issue here,” referring to United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973) [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to subscribers].

“Cell phones, however, place vast quan­tities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals,” the majority held. “A search of the information on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the type of brief physical search considered in Robinson.

“We therefore decline to extend Robinson to searches of data on cell phones, and hold instead that officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search.”


On Aug. 22, 2009, David Riley was pulled over by San Diego police for having expired tags on his car. When Officer Charles Dunnigan learned that Riley was driving with a suspended license, the officer decided to impound his car. When Dunnigan discovered two firearms in Riley’s car, he was arrested for carrying concealed, loaded weapons.

Dunnigan seized Riley’s Samsung smart phone from his pocket and conducted a two-stage warrantless search of the device. In looking through Riley’s texts, Dunnigan saw some indications that made him think that Riley might be connected with the “Blood” gang known as “Lincoln Park.”  About two hours later, while Riley was being interrogated at the police station, a detective conducted a more thorough search of Riley’s phone. The detective found various videos that he said supported suspicions of Riley’s gang ties and his involvement with a prior shooting incident.

Trial And Conviction

Riley was charged with shooting at an occupied vehicle, assault with a semiautomatic firearm and attempted murder related to the prior incident. During a trial and retrial in the San Diego County Superior Court, Riley moved to suppress all of the evidence obtained in the cell phone searches. Riley said that because the searches were warrantless, they violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The cell phone evidence was deemed admissible, based on the newly decided People v. Diaz, 244 P.3d 501 (Calif. 2011) [enhanced version], in which the California Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment’s search-incident-to-arrest doctrine permits police to conduct a full exploratory search of a cell phone if the phone is immediately associated with the arrestee’s person at the time of arrest. Riley was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

In February 2013, the Fourth District California Court of Appeal upheld the judgment, finding that Diaz controlled because Riley’s phone had been “immediately associated with [his] person” at the time of arrest. Riley appealed to the California Supreme Court, which denied review without comment on May 1. Riley filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court. His petition was granted.


In the other case, Brima Wurie was arrested after police observed him participate in an apparent drug sale. At the police station, police seized a cell phone from Wurie and noticed that the phone was receiving multiple calls from a source identified as “my house” on its external screen. The officers opened the phone, accessed its call log, determined the number associated with the “my house” label and traced that number to what they suspected was Wurie’s apartment. The officers secured a search warrant and found drugs, a firearm, ammunition and cash. Wurie was charged with drug and firearm offenses in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. The District Court denied Wurie’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the apartment search, and he was convicted.

The First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on May 17, 2013, reversed the denial of the motion to suppress and vacated the relevant convictions. The United States filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court. Its petition was granted.


Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined in Justice Roberts’ opinion. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

The majority acknowledged “that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime.”

“Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest. Our cases have historically recognized that the warrant requirement is ‘an important working part of our machinery of gov­ernment,’ not merely ‘an inconvenience to be somehow “weighed” against the claims of police efficiency.’  Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U. S. 443, 481 (1971)  [enhanced version]. Recent technological advances similar to those discussed here have, in addition, made the process of obtaining a warrant itself more efficient. See McNeely, 569 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 11–12) [enhanced version]; id., at ___ (ROBERTS, C. J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (slip op., at 8) (describing jurisdiction where ‘police officers can e-mail warrant requests to judges’ iPads [and] judges have signed such warrants and e-mailed them back to officers in less than 15 minutes’),” the majority said.

Justice Alito

Justice Alito said he is “not convinced at this time that the ancient rule on searches incident to arrest is based exclusively (or even primarily) on the need to protect the safety of arresting officers and the need to prevent the destruction of evidence,” noting that the rule “antedates the adoption of the Fourth Amendment by at least a century.”

“The idea that officer safety and the preservation of evidence are the sole reasons for allowing a warrantless search incident to arrest appears to derive from the Court’s reasoning in Chimel v. California, 395 U. S. 752 (1969) [enhanced version], a case that involved the lawfulness of a search of the scene of an arrest, not the person of an arrestee. As I have explained, Chimel’s reasoning is questionable, see Arizona v. Gant, 556 U. S. 332, 361–363 (2009) (ALITO, J., dissenting) [enhanced version], and I think it is a mistake to allow that rea­soning to affect cases like these that concern the search of the person of arrestees.”

Justice Alito said the Supreme Court “strikes this balance in favor of privacy interests with respect to all cell phones and all information found in them, and this approach leads to anomalies.”  


Riley is represented by Fisher of Stanford Law School’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic in Stanford, Calif., Patrick Morgan Ford of the Law Office of Patrick Morgan Ford in San Diego and Donald B. Ayer of Jones Day in Washington.

The state is represented by Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, Solicitor General Edward C. DuMont, Chief Assistant Attorney General Dane R. Gillette, Senior Assistant Attorney General Julie L. Garland, Deputy Solicitors General Steven T. Oetting and Craig J. Konnoth and Deputy Attorney General Christine M. Levingston Bergman of the California Department of Justice in San Diego.

Deputy Solicitor General Michael R. Dreeben, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., Acting Assistant General David O’Neil, Assistant to the Solicitor General John F. Bash and attorney Robert A. Parker of the Department of Justice in Washington, represent the United States.

Assistant Federal Public Defender Judith H. Mizner of the Federal Defender Office in Boston represents Wurie.

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