Finally, a good Fourth Amendment search and seizure decision from the United States Supreme Court.


In Riley v. California (and United States v. Wurie) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from a person who’s been arrested. Prior CourtCell Phones Searches Must Be With Warrant precedent held that warrantless searches incident to someone’s arrest were limited to areas within the person’s immediate control where the search was justified by interests of officer safety and preventing evidence destruction. See Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969). However, the Riley Court refused to extend this rule to searches of data stored on cell phones seized incident to an arrest. The Court held such warrantless searches did not further government interests and involved greater individual privacy interests than a brief physical search. Thank you, Chief Justice Roberts.


The Court noted the ubiquitous nature of cell phones (now more than 90% of American adults own one) and how many people keep a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives on it. These same folks would reasonably expect those digital records be kept private absent probable cause the cell phone contained evidence of a crime. Importantly, the Court did not hold information on a cell phone was immune from a search. Only that a warrant was generally required before a search and that exigent circumstances or the owner’s consent could justify a warrantless search in particular cases. 


This case is a big win for individual privacy rights and Bryan-College Station criminal defense attorneys defending cases involving the warrantless search of their client’s cell phone, incident to their arrest.