VICTORY: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Privacy Rights, 9-0, Requires that Officers Obtain a Warrant in Order to Search Cell Phones Confiscated During Arrest
June 25, 2014
WASHINGTON, D.C. —In a surprise decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds privacy rights, 9-0, requiring officers to obtain a warrant in order to search cell phones confiscated during arrest. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the convictions of two individuals that were obtained, in part, through the use of data gathered from the suspects’ cell phones without a warrant. In the consolidated cases of United States v. Wurie and Riley v. California, the Supreme Court considered whether information stored on cell phones was protected under the Fourth Amendment, requiring that officers obtain a warrant before searching the devices.
In the decision, the court held that given the significant technological improvements in the last several decades and the substantial amount of information people now store on their cell phones, individuals do have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their devices and officers seeking to search the contents of cell phones confiscated after an arrest must first obtain a warrant to conduct a search. The decision constitutes a rare win for privacy rights from the Supreme Court which has, in recent years, done little to protect individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights. Last term, in Maryland v. King, the Supreme Court held that police officers can forcibly extract a suspect’s DNA, whether or not they have been convicted of a crime. Also last year, in Salinas v. Texas, the Supreme Court determined that a suspect who remains silent without specifically invoking his Fifth Amendment rights could have his refusal to answer questions used against him in court.
“With today’s decision, the Court has made the first small step toward respecting the privacy rights of Americans,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “However, we must be mindful that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are collecting our private information, storing it, and it will be available to the police. Also, with the prevalence of roadside strip searches, no-knock SWAT team raids, and the expanded use of unreliable drug-sniffing dogs all with the blessing of the court, there is no immediate end in sight to the rampant intrusions on physical privacy rights.”
The issue at the heart of United States v. Wurie arose out of an incident that took place in September 2007, when Boston police officers stopped Brima Wurie, a motorist they believed was engaging in a drug deal. Police arrested Wurie and transported him to a police station. At the police station, police took two cell phones and cash from Wurie’s person. Police opened the cell phone and accessed the call log, and based on this information became suspicious that Wurie resided at a house on Silver Street in Boston. After conducting a warrantless entry of the residence to secure it, police obtained a warrant to search the residence and discovered cocaine, marijuana, a firearm and cash. Wurie was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm, but moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of his cell phone, including the evidence seized at the Silver Street residence. Although the trial court denied Wurie’s request, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed that decision and ruled that the warrantless search of the cell phone was not justified.
In asking the Supreme Court to affirm the appellate court’s ruling, Rutherford Institute attorneys pointed out that while the Fourth Amendment allows police to search the person of an arrestee incident to the arrest, such searches must be strictly limited to the fundamental concerns of officer safety and preservation of evidence. Neither of these concerns warrant the routine search of an arrestee’s cell phone by police, and the legality of a cell phone search incident to an arrest must be judged on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, Institute attorneys pointed out that allowing cell phone searches incident to an arrest would open up a vast amount of personal information to police. Affiliate attorneys Anand Agneshwar, Robert B. Sobelman, and Carl S. Nadler of Arnold & Porter, LLP, assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the amicus brief before the Supreme Court.