SCOTUS Sweeping Embrace of Digital Privacy
Since 1914, the “search incident to arrest” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, has allowed police to search any items that a person had on them, or within reach in a car when arrested. Over time, natural progression led to the inclusion of cell phones in these searches.
In Riley v. California, an individual was stopped for a traffic violation that led to an arrest on weapons charges. Upon arrest, the police officer searched the defendant’s cell phone and found photographs and videos that were used to charge him for a previous shooting.
Today, the Supreme Court ruled in Riley, that the “search incident to arrest” exception does not apply to cellphones because of their nature. Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his opinion for the Court, “it is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than ninety percent of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate.” As a result, individuals should be protected from the search of these devices without a warrant. See, Opinion Analysis: Broad Cloak of Privacy for Cellphones.
In ruling so, the Court rejected every argument placed before it that an officer should be permitted to search a cellphone taken from an arrestee. It left open just one option for such searches without a court order: if police are facing a dire emergency, such as trying to locate a missing child or heading off a terrorist plot. Even then, it ruled, those “exigent” exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant would have to satisfy a judge after the fact.Id. The protection also applies to remotely stored private information that can be accessed by the cellphone.