The DKT Liberty Project filed an amicus brief on March 10th in the US Supreme Court case Riley v. California, addressing whether police are required to obtain a warrant prior to searching a person’s cell phone at the time of arrest. Mr. Riley was pulled over by police for having an expired license tag. The police discovered that the car was unregistered, impounded the car, discovered firearms concealed under the hood, and arrested Riley. Police searched Riley’s smart phone at the time of arrest, then searched it again some 10 hours later at the station. At no time did the officers obtain a search warrant. What began as a simple traffic stop developed into much more serious charges on the basis of these warrantless searches: Riley was sentenced to 15 years to life.
The Fourth Amendment guarantees that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…” and that law enforcement must obtain a warrant that describes with particularity what is being searched for. During Riley’s trial for attempted murder, police relied on the contacts, photos and videos that they found “looking through a lot of stuff” on the smart phone. Riley’s lawyers objected to the introduction of this evidence on the grounds that it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The judge permitted the evidence, and Riley’s lawyers appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Supreme Court precedents have established that police, at the time of arrest, may search the arrestee’s person and area immediately in his control in order to be sure there are no weapons that might endanger officers’ safety, and to avoid possible destruction of evidence. For example, it is permissible to search a wallet or cigarette pack. These precedents were established before cell phones were invented.
It is the DKT Liberty Project’s position that, though it may be similar in size to a cigarette pack, a smart phone is a powerful computer, containing private financial, medical, shopping, business and a vast amount of other data, thereby turning the smart phone into an extension of the individual’s home and office, in essence a form of “digital home”. The founders of our nation were keenly aware that British soldiers and officials had used “general warrants” allowing them to rummage through all personal and business records in a person’s home or office. Therefore, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires that law officers obtain a warrant that describes with particularity the items to be searched for.
Our brief says: “It is irrational that a person should lose constitutional protections available in the pre-digital world for her papers simply because technology now allows her to carry those papers . . . with her.” As the Supreme Court said in Mincey v. Arizona (1978), “The mere fact that law enforcement may be made more efficient can never by itself justify disregard of the Fourth Amendment.” The DKT Liberty Project believes we must keep liberty strong and our constitutional protections intact. In this case, the Fourth Amendment must prevail.