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Happy Fourth of July! The Supreme Court Got It Right In Riley v. California

Criminal Defense Attorney serving Oak Harbor, Seattle, and King, Island, Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom County provides a quick, unedited blurb about how the Supreme Court was correct in its June 25, 2014 opinion.

The Supreme Court recently issued its opinion in Riley v. California on June 25, 2014. The court held the police generally may not conduct a warrantless search of digital information on cell phones seized incident to arrest. This is a huge victory for privacy advocates and those who oppose unfettered government intrusion into the personal lives of citizens.

The court outlined the evolution of the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement. It first recognized the general rule governing the search incident to arrest exception stating “the right on the part of the Government, always recognized under English and American law, to search the person of the accused when legally arrested to discover and seize the fruits or evidences of crime.” It then discussed three major cases governing the scope of searches incident to arrest.

In 1969 in Chimel v. California the police conducted a search of an entire home following an arrest made inside the home. The court ultimately concluded this search did not fall within the search incident to arrest exception because the search was not limited to preserving evidence or protecting officers. But four years later in United States v. Robinson, the court held that a search of a crumpled up cigarette package in an arrestee’s coat pocket was reasonable even though there was no concern about loss of evidence or officer safety. Then, in the 2009 case Arizona v. Gant, the court returned to the Chimel rationale concerning officer safety and evidence preservation which provides justification for searches incident to arrest. Based on this rationale Gant held that police may only search a vehicle incident to an arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or if evidence relevant to the arrest might be found in the vehicle.

With this background the court turned to unfettered searches of cell phones incident to arrest. It recognized the fact that massive amounts of personal data are on cellular phones. Finally it recognized that in most cases a search of a cellular phone seized incident to arrest does not fit into the rubric concerning officer safety or preservation of evidence in most cases. Finally the court held that police generally may not conduct a warrantless search of digital information on cell phones seized incident to arrest. It also declined to make a distinction between smart phones and less sophisticated phones.

This is a huge victory. The Supreme Court has recognized the great expectation of privacy individuals have when it comes to data on computers. It is possible this opinion may provide insight in future cases concerning the NSA’s mining of meta-data. it is also possible it may have an impact on future cases.

One writer opined the Riley opinion matters for purposes of future cases concerning the NSA spying programs: a phone is more than just a phone as opposed to the crumpled cigarette pack with heroin as in Robinson. The expectation of privacy associated with a phone may be as great as one’s expectation of privacy in one’s home. And the case also reveals how important it is for judge’s to understand the technology when making decisions concerning search and seizure of such technology.

Overall, it is good to see that judges, at least this time, had the guts to stand up to the executive branch. That is their job. This Fourth of July we have something to celebrate–reassurance that checks exist to ensure we will be free from government intrusion and tyranny.

Happy Fourth of July from the criminal defense lawyers at Platt & Buescher.