What’s On Your Cell Phone? Know Your Rights to Cell Phone Privacy

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court wrapped a limited layer of privacy around our cell phones.

The New York Times reported, that while the decision will offer protection to the 12 million people arrested every year, many for minor crimes, its impact will most likely be much broader.

The ruling almost certainly applies to searches of iPads, tablets and laptop computers. At Penn State, like every college, it would be hard to find someone who is not carrying at least one of those devices. Cell phone privacy, then, affects anyone carrying such a device.

In Riley v. California, Chief Justice Roberts explained the central role that cell phones play in contemporary life. They are, he said, “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.” He went on to say that old principles required that a cell phone’s contents be protected from routine searches.

One of the driving forces behind the American Revolution, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, was revulsion against “general warrants,” which “allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.”

“The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand,” the chief justice also wrote, “does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought.”

Here are the facts that caused Justice Roberts to say: “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.”

In the case, David Riley was stopped by a police officer for driving with expired registration tags. In the course of the stop, the officer also learned that Riley’s license had been suspended. The officer impounded Riley’s car, pursuant to department policy, and another officer conducted an inventory search of the car. Riley was arrested for possession of concealed and loaded firearms when that search turned up two handguns under the car’s hood.

An officer searched Riley incident to the arrest and found items associated with the “Bloods” street gang.

He also seized a cell phone from Riley’s pants pocket. According to Riley’s uncontradicted assertion, the phone was a “smart phone,” a cell phone with a broad range of other functions based on advanced computing capability, large storage capacity, and Internet connectivity.

The officer accessed information on the phone and noticed that some words (presumably in text messages or a contacts list) were preceded by the letters “CK”—a label that, he believed, stood for “Crip Killers,” a slang term for members of the Bloods gang.

At the police station about two hours after the arrest, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the contents of the phone. The detective testified that he “went through” Riley’s phone “looking for evidence, because . . . gang members will often video themselves with guns or take pictures of themselves with the guns.” Although there was “a lot of stuff” on the phone, particular files that “caught [the detective’s] eye” included videos of young men sparring while someone yelled encouragement using the moniker “Blood.”

The police also found 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. The State alleged that Riley had committed those crimes for the benefit of a criminal street gang, an aggravating factor that carries an enhanced sentence. Prior to trial, Riley moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone.

He contended that the searches of his phone violated the Fourth Amendment, because they had been performed without a warrant and were not otherwise justified by exigent circumstances. The trial court rejected that argument. At Riley’s trial, police officers testified about the photographs and videos found on the phone, and some of the photographs were admitted into evidence. Riley was convicted on all three counts and received an enhanced sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

The facts of the case were not as pretty as the principle of law that made the headlines.

While Riley might not pass a history test trying to explain why his rights were being protected, his lawyers understood the importance of the right of privacy and the Court agreed.

At the Mazza Law Group our lawyers work to protect the rights of our clients. If you are arrested, even for a minor offense, you have the right to remain silent. Your cell phone cannot be searched without your permission unless the police get a warrant.

“If you have nothing to hide you will let me look” is not an exception to the Fourth Amendment.

Today’s Legal Tip: “Call us before you consent.” The Mazza Law Group, P.C., (814) 237-6255.

[1] 2014 WL 2864483 (decided June 25, 2014).

Photo credit: Copyright: ptnphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

What’s On Your Cell Phone? Know Your Rights to Cell Phone Privacy was last modified: July 8th, 2014 by William Arbuckle