In a pretty universally awesome decision
authored by Chief Justice John Roberts issued Wednesday—and yes, I'm as surprised to be typing those words as you are to read them—the Supreme Court has effectively prevented police officers from seizing and searching your smartphones upon arresting you, unless they have obtained a search warrant from a magistrate. As the Chief Justice concludes, in what is functionally a unanimous decision:
We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost....
Our cases have recognized that the Fourth Amendment was the founding generation’s response to the reviled “general warrants” and “writs of assistance” of the colonial era, which allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity. Opposition to such searches was in fact one of the driving forces behind the Revolution itself. In 1761, the patriot James Otis delivered a speech in Boston denouncing the use of writs of assistance. A young John Adams was there, and he would later write that “[e]very man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.” According to Adams, Otis’s speech was “the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born.”
Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life.” The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.
The decision is the latest in a series
over the last few terms
seeking to clarify what the right to privacy means in this new technological area. What the Court did today, and how they did it, below the fold.
David Riley enjoyed documenting his life, as the police learned upon pulling him over for driving (yes, while black) with expired registration tags. They learned his license had been suspended, searched his car and found concealed and loaded weapons under the hood. Then they took his smartphone. On Riley's phone, they found a lot of contacts listed as CK, a label that the officer believed "stood for 'Crip Killers,' a slang term for members of the Bloods gang." And back at HQ, an other detective searched further on the phone and found pictures of gang-related activity, including "photographs of Riley standing in front of a car they suspected had been involved in a shooting a few weeks earlier."
Riley was ultimately charged, in connection with that earlier shooting, with firing at an occupied vehicle, assault with a semiautomatic firearm, and attempted murder. Prior to trial, his attorney moved to suppress all evidence from the phone. He lost. Riley was convicted, and sentenced to 15-to-life.
In another case, Brima Wurie was seen dealing drugs from a car. Upon arrest, his flip phone was taken, and based on the calls coming from "my house" the police found said house, as well as the woman pictured on his phone's wallpaper. They obtained a search warrant based on the cell phone evidence, and during that search found "215 grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a firearm and ammunition, and cash."
The appeals from those cases bring us to today.
Five years ago, the Court scaled back the types of searches the police could do simultaneous with an arrest, holding that once the accused was safely away from his vehicle, the police needed to obtain a warrant to search beyond what was in plain view, except when it was reasonable to believe the vehicle contained evidence of the offense for which the arrest took place. And basically that's what California argued here: that cell phones might well have a lot of relevant evidence on them, and that absent an immediate search defendants might have means to have their phones wiped remotely. As the chief justice explains for the history books, not that anyone reading the decision doesn't get this:
These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy. A smart phone of the sort taken from Riley was unheard of ten years ago; a significant majority of American adults now own such phones.
The Court first dismisses any safety concerns:
Digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape. Law enforcement officers remain free to examine the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon—say, to determine whether there is a razor blade hidden between the phone and its case. Once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, however, data on the phone can endanger no one.
Nor are they concerned about remote wiping:
In any event, as to remote wiping, law enforcement is not without specific means to address the threat. Remote wiping can be fully prevented by disconnecting a phone from the network. There are at least two simple ways to do this: First, law enforcement officers can turn the phone off or remove its battery. Second, if they are concerned about encryption or other potential problems, they can leave a phone powered on and place it in an enclosure that isolates the phone from radio waves.. Such devices are commonly called “Faraday bags,” after the English scientist Michael Faraday. They are essentially sandwich bags made of aluminum foil: cheap, lightweight, and easy to use. They may not be a complete answer to the problem, but at least for now they provide a reasonable response. In fact, a number of law enforcement agencies around the country already encourage the use of Faraday bags.
And unlike the case last term where the Court approved DNA swabs from anyone arrested for a violence crime
, smartphone searches would reveal way more than what people expose publicly:
Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person. The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers....
Most people cannot lug around every piece of mail they have received for the past several months, every picture they have taken, or every book or article they have read—nor would they have any reason to attempt to do so.... The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier. A person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones; he would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several months, as would routinely be kept on a phone....
In 1926, Learned Hand observed that it is “a totally different thing to search a man’s pockets and use against him what they contain, from ransacking his house for everything which may incriminate him.” If his pockets contain a cell phone, however, that is no longer true. Indeed, a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house: A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form—unless the phone is.
And the Court didn't even go with the modified rule proposed by the Obama DOJ, that at least
the police should be able to search your call log:
The Government relies on Smith v. Maryland, 442 U. S. 735 (1979) , which held that no warrant was required to use a pen register at telephone company premises to identify numbers dialed by a particular caller. The Court in that case, however, concluded that the use of a pen register was not a “search” at all under the Fourth Amendment. There is no dispute here that the officers engaged in a search of Wurie’s cell phone. Moreover, call logs typically contain more than just phone numbers; they include any identifying information that an individual might add, such as the label “my house” in Wurie’s case.
But police aren't powerless. Number one, they can obtain a search warrant. Or ...
Other case-specific exceptions may still justify a warrantless search of a particular phone. “One well-recognized exception applies when ‘ “the exigencies of the situation” make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.’ ” Such exigencies could include the need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence in individual cases, to pursue a fleeing suspect, and to assist persons who are seriously injured or are threatened with imminent injury. In Chadwick, for example, the Court held that the exception for searches incident to arrest did not justify a search of the trunk at issue, but noted that “if officers have reason to believe that luggage contains some immediately dangerous instrumentality, such as explosives, it would be foolhardy to transport it to the station house without opening the luggage.”
In light of the availability of the exigent circumstances exception, there is no reason to believe that law enforcement officers will not be able to address some of the more extreme hypotheticals that have been suggested: a suspect texting an accomplice who, it is feared, is preparing to detonate a bomb, or a child abductor who may have information about the child’s location on his cell phone. The defendants here recognize—indeed, they stress—that such fact-specific threats may justify a warrantless search of cell phone data. The critical point is that, unlike the search incident to arrest exception, the exigent circumstances exception requires a court to examine whether an emergency justified a warrantless search in each particular case.
Today's decision was, as I noted above, practically unanimous. Justice Alito concurred separately to say "I pretty much agree, but I'd invite state legislatures to try to craft a better rule given their fact-finding abilities," noting that the Court's handing down a bright-line rule, while making things clear for the police, still leads to some weird discrepancies:
The Court strikes this balance in favor of privacy interests with respect to all cell phones and all information found in them, and this approach leads to anomalies. For example, the Court’s broad holding favors information in digital form over information in hard-copy form. Suppose that two suspects are arrested. Suspect number one has in his pocket a monthly bill for his land-line phone, and the bill lists an incriminating call to a long-distance number. He also has in his a wallet a few snapshots, and one of these is incriminating. Suspect number two has in his pocket a cell phone, the call log of which shows a call to the same incriminating number. In addition, a number of photos are stored in the memory of the cell phone, and one of these is incriminating. Under established law, the police may seize and examine the phone bill and the snapshots in the wallet without obtaining a warrant, but under the Court’s holding today, the information stored in the cell phone is out.
While the Court’s approach leads to anomalies, I do not see a workable alternative. Law enforcement officers need clear rules regarding searches incident to arrest, and it would take many cases and many years for the courts to develop more nuanced rules. And during that time, the nature of the electronic devices that ordinary Americans carry on their persons would continue to change.
More decisions on Thursday, and they are almost guaranteed to make you less happy than this one.