Russell Hebets June 25, 2014

In Riley v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that without a warrant, the police generally may not search digital information on a cell phone seized during an arrest.

The petitioner, David Riley, was stopped for a traffic violation which eventually led to his arrest for weapon charges and a pat-down search. The police found his cell phone, and looked through Riley’s internet search history. They found a number of repeated searches involving the use of gang terminology. Upon this discovery, the State of California charged Riley with a shooting that had occurred a few weeks prior and upped his sentence because of his alleged gang affiliation.

The Court provided a few reasons as to why they made their decision. Police officers can search a person to ensure that person has no weapons that can be used to harm a police officer. While the actual cell phone could theoretically be used to hit an officer, the information contained on a cell phone poses no risk to the officer. The Court feared that the proposals made by California and the United States allowed the police too much leeway in the search of cell phone data. Being allowed to search a phone only for the arrestee’s identity and information relevant to the crime would not restrict the amount of information the police would have access to. If the police can look through your internet search history to see if you Googled information about weapons or escaping from custody, they’re still going to see your entire search history in the process. In the Court’s opinion, this risk of the invasion of personal privacy outweighs the government’s interests in crime investigation.

However, this ruling does not mean the police can’t search your cell phone at all – they just need a warrant to do so.

Want to read the full decision? Link: