Take Two #129: Horses, Rocket Ships & Cell Phone Privacy

By Kyra-lin Hom

About a month and a half ago, I wrote a column on the legalities of warrantless cell phone searches. Specifically, I mentioned the case of Riley v. California that was waiting on a Supreme Court decision at that time. To quote myself, here's a brief reminder of the case:

“...the defendant was pulled over for driving with expired license registration tags. Prior to impounding a vehicle, police are required to inventory its contents to avoid a future lawsuit. While performing this search, police found two guns and subsequently arrested Riley for illegal possession of firearms. This then allowed the police [to] search Riley's person incident to arrest whereupon they found a cell phone in his pocket. Later [while at the police station], police went through the contents of the phone (without a warrant) and discovered evidence linking Riley to a gang...shooting. Ballistic tests matched Riley's guns to the shooting and he was arrested and convicted of 'shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder, and assault with a semi-automatic firearm.' Riley is appealing on 4th Amendment grounds.”

That Supreme Court decision has just rolled in with a landslide vote: 9-0 in favor of Riley's appeal.

In the opinion, Chief Justice Roberts said that trying to justify these warrantless cell phone searches by relying on precedents established prior to the advent of the digital age was like comparing a horseback ride to space travel. Sure, both are modes of transportation, but that's about all they have in common. The practicalities of such a comparison are quite obviously ridiculous. A horse is not a rocket ship. A cigarette pack is not a cell phone.

So what's the word in plain English? If you're arrested, stopped, or in any way apprehended by law enforcement they can seize your cell phone but they may not search it (unless there are extreme circumstances) without a warrant. Any evidence found on your phone without a warrant by the police is inadmissible in court as per the 4th Amendment.

This decision is huge. It is a sweeping statement that firmly yanks our 4th Amendment into the digital age. The fact that it was voted on 9-0 is just the delicious cream cheese icing on the cake. I did not come even close to predicting this kind of a vote and am quite frankly amazed by it.

I had originally predicted the vote to be pro-appeal (that warrants were necessary) then flipped to against-appeal during the time I was writing my previous column. Then I flipped back again to pro when presenting my final paper to my Criminal Law & Legal Reasoning professor. But I never once thought it would be so decisive a victory for privacy.

Why? Because our current Supreme Court isn't always so progressive. Chief Justice Roberts himself is often cited as being very politically conservative and favoring government over the individual. BUT it's obvious that voting precedent aside, every single Justice felt the pressing weight of this case to establish a mighty legal precedent and handled it accordingly.

Will this vote possibly hinder some future police investigations? Absolutely. The Justices admitted this freely with regret, but they also stated that the consequences of not requiring warrants in these instances would be far more damaging in the long run to the 4th Amendment and our personal rights to privacy as American citizens. How cool is that?

Take heart, everyone. Sometimes the big kahunas really do have our backs.

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