Riley v. California

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Riley v. California
U.S. v. Wurie
Argued April 29, 2014
Decided June 25, 2014
Full case nameDavid Leon Riley, Petitioner v. California;
United States, Petitioner v. Brima Wurie
Docket nos.13-132
Citations573 U.S. 373 (more)
134 S. Ct. 2473; 189 L. Ed. 2d 430
Case history
  • People v. Riley, No. D059840, 2013 Cal App Unpub Lexis 1033, 2013 WL 475242 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. Feb. 08, 2013); cert. granted, 71 U.S. 1161 (2014).
  • United States v. Wurie, 612 F. Supp. 2d 104 (D. Mass. 2009); reversed, 728 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2013); cert. granted, 71 U.S. 1161 (2014).
Police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Sonia Sotomayor · Elena Kagan
Case opinions
MajorityRoberts, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan
ConcurrenceAlito (in part)
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. IV

Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014), is a landmark[1] United States Supreme Court case in which the Court unanimously held that the warrantless search and seizure of digital contents of a cell phone during an arrest is unconstitutional.[2]

The case arose from a split among state and federal courts over the cell phone search incident to arrest (SITA) doctrine. The Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits had ruled that officers can search cell phones incident to arrest under various standards. That rule was followed by the Supreme Courts of Georgia, Massachusetts, and California. Other courts in the First Circuit and the Supreme Courts of Florida and Ohio disagreed.


Prior Supreme Court precedents[edit]

In Chimel v. California (1969), the Court ruled that if police arrest someone, they may search the body of the person without a warrant and "the area into which he might reach" in order to protect material evidence or the officers' safety. That is the origin of the notion that police may search a suspect, and the area immediately surrounding the person, without a warrant during a lawful arrest in accordance with the SITA doctrine.

Before the Riley case, the Court had explored variations on the Chimel theme, considering police searches of various items individuals had close at hand when arrested, and the Justices were prepared to look into the seizure of cell phones "incident to arrest". Lower courts were in dispute on whether the Fourth Amendment allows the police to search the digital contents of such a phone, without first getting a warrant. It was unclear whether, or how much, difference it would make to the Court, but the two cases it chose to review on that question involved different versions of cellphones: the traditional "flip-phone", which is older, as opposed to the more modern "smartphone", which potentially holds much more data about the user.[3]

This consolidated opinion addresses two cases involving similar issues pertaining to warrantless cell phone searches incident to arrest.

In the first case, David Leon Riley was pulled over on August 22, 2009, for expired registrations tags. During the stop, the San Diego Police Officer also found that Riley was driving with a suspended driver's license. The San Diego Police Department's policy at the time was to tow and impound a vehicle after stopping a driver with a suspended license in order to prevent the driver from driving again. Additionally, department policy required the officers to perform an inventory search of the vehicle, which in this case led to the discovery of two handguns under the hood of the vehicle. Later ballistic testing would confirm that the handguns were the weapons used in a gangland murder on August 2, 2009, for which Riley had been a suspect. Although eyewitnesses to the shooting claimed that Riley could have been one of the shooters, they declined to give a definitive positive identification of Riley as one of the shooters. However, this was not known by Officer Dunnigan at the time of Riley's traffic stop. Because of the discovery of the concealed and loaded handguns—along with gang paraphernalia—during the vehicle search, police placed Riley under arrest and searched his cell phone without a warrant. The cell phone search yielded information indicating that Riley was a member of the Lincoln Park gang; evidence included pictures, cell phone contacts, text messages, and video clips. Included in the photos was a picture of a different vehicle that Riley owned, which was also the vehicle involved in the August 2nd gang shooting. Based in part on the pictures and videos recovered from the cell phone, police charged Riley in connection with the gang shooting and sought an enhancement based on Riley's gang membership. The Petitioner (Riley) moved to suppress the cell phone evidence at the trial level, but the judge permitted this evidence in both the first trial and on retrial. Ultimately, Riley was convicted and the California Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment.[4]

In the second case, Brima Wurie was arrested after police observed him participate in an apparent drug sale. At the police station, the officers seized two cell phones from Wurie's person, including the "flip phone" at issue in this case. Shortly after arriving at the station, police noticed that the phone was receiving multiple calls from a source identified as “my house” on the phone's external screen. The officers opened the phone, accessed its call log, determined the number associated with the “my house” label, and traced that number to what they suspected was Wurie's apartment. They secured a search warrant for the location and, during the ensuing search, found 215 grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a firearm, ammunition, and cash. Wurie was subsequently charged with drug and firearm offenses. He moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of the apartment, but the District Court denied the motion, and Wurie was convicted. A divided panel of the First Circuit reversed the denial of the motion to suppress and vacated the relevant convictions. The court held that cell phones are distinct from other physical possessions that may be searched incident to arrest without a warrant because of the amount of personal data cell phones contain and the negligible threat they pose to law enforcement interests.[5]

Procedural history[edit]

Riley's lawyer moved to suppress all the evidence the officers had obtained during the search of his cell phone on the grounds that the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court rejected this argument and held that the search was legitimate under the SITA doctrine. Riley was convicted. On appeal, the court affirmed the judgment based on the recent California Supreme Court decision People v. Diaz. In Diaz, the court held that the Fourth Amendment "search-incident-to-arrest" doctrine permits the police to conduct a full exploratory search of a cell phone (even if it is conducted later and at a different location) whenever the phone is found near the suspect at the time of arrest.

The Defendant in Diaz sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court. While his petition was pending the California Legislature passed a bill requiring police to obtain a warrant before searching the contents of any "portable electronic devices". The court denied the petition after the State brought this bill to its attention. One week later, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, stating that "courts are better suited" to decide this issue of Fourth Amendment law.[6]

The California Supreme Court held that seizure of Riley's cell phone was lawful due to the fact that the seizure occurred during a "search incident to arrest". The court reasoned that historical precedent had been established from several cases brought to the U.S. Supreme Court; which that have allowed officers to seize objects under an arrestee’s control and perform searches of those objects without warrant for the purpose of preserving evidence. In doing so, the court applied the case People v. Diaz, which held that the unwarranted search and seizure of a cell phone on Diaz's person was valid. The Court, with Diaz in mind, contended that only arrest is required for a valid search of an arrestee’s person and belongings. The court then proceeded to apply United States v. Edwards to hold that the search was valid despite the fact that it had occurred 90 minutes after arrest. In the Edwards case, an arrestee's clothing was seized 10 hours after arrest in order to preserve evidence (paint chips) that might be present on the clothes. Given these cases, the state court concluded that the search and seizure of Riley's cell phone was valid.[citation needed]

Supreme Court review[edit]

John G. Roberts Jr.

The case of Riley v. California as heard before the Supreme Court combined two cases, Riley itself and United States v. Wurie. Petitioner Riley argued, based on the ruling of People v. Diaz, the digital contents of a smartphone do not threaten the safety of police officers. Therefore, limiting searches to circumstances where officers have a reasonable belief of evidence of a crime still violates constitutional rights.[citation needed][7]

In Riley v. California, Stanford University law professor Jeffrey L. Fisher argued on behalf of petitioner David Riley. Fisher claimed that at least six courts hold that the Fourth Amendment permits searches of this type, but that three courts do not.[8] Edward C. DuMont delivered the oral argument on behalf of the respondent. Michael R. Dreeben acted as the deputy solicitor supporting the respondent.

Fisher told the justices there are "very, very profound problems with searching a smartphone without a warrant" and that it was like giving "police officers authority to search through the private papers and the drawers and bureaus and cabinets of somebody's house."[9] Fisher warned that it could open up "every American's entire life to the police department, not just at the scene but later at the station house and downloaded into their computer forever".[9]


Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, concluding that a warrant is required to search a mobile phone.[10] Roberts wrote that it fails the warrantless search test established in Chimel v. California:

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.[11]

Although possible evidence stored on a phone may be destroyed with either remote wiping or data encryption, Roberts noted that is "the ordinary operation of a phone's security features, apart from any active attempt by a defendant or his associates to conceal or destroy evidence upon arrest."[12] He then argues that a warrantless search is unlikely to make much of a difference:

Cell phone data would be vulnerable to remote wiping from the time an individual anticipates arrest to the time any eventual search of the phone is completed... likewise, an officer who seizes a phone in an unlocked state might not be able to begin his search in the short time remaining before the phone locks and data becomes encrypted.[13]

Roberts then cites several common examples to turn off or prevent the phone's security features. Furthermore, Roberts argued that cell phones differ both quantitatively and qualitatively from other objects in a person's pocket:

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.[14]

Concurring opinion[edit]

Justice Samuel Alito wrote an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, citing his dissent in Arizona v. Gant that called Chimel's reasoning "questionable." However, "we should not mechanically apply the rule used in the predigital era to the search of a cell phone. Many cell phones now in use are capable of storing and accessing a quantity of information, some highly personal, that no person would ever have had on his person in hard-copy form."[15]

However, in trying to find a balance between law enforcement and privacy issues, he expressed concern that the majority opinion would create anomalies: "Under established law, police may seize and examine [hard copies of information] in the wallet without obtaining a warrant, but under the Court's holding today, the information stored in the cell phone is out."[16] Alito further suggested that Congress or state legislatures may need to consider new laws that draw "reasonable distinctions based on categories of information or perhaps other variable",[17] otherwise "it would be very unfortunate if privacy protection in the 21st century were left primarily to the federal courts using the blunt instrument of the Fourth Amendment".[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mathews, Kristen J. "Landmark Supreme Court Ruling Protects Cell Phones from Warrantless Searches". National Law Review. Retrieved 2 August 2014.
  2. ^ Clark, William. "Protecting the Privacies of Digital Life: Riley v. California, the Fourth Amendment's Particularity Requirement, and Search Protocols for Cell Phone Search Warrants". BCL Rev.
  3. ^ Denniston, Lyle (25 April 2014). "Argument preview: Police and cellphone privacy". SCOTUSblog. Retrieved 1 July 2014.
  4. ^ Bensur, Gabriella; Brokamp, Jennifer (25 April 2014). "Riley v. California". Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
  5. ^ Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014), (slip op., at 2-3)
  6. ^ "Riley v. California - Concerning the Constitutionality of a Warrantless Cell Phone Search Incident to Arrest". Electronic Privacy Information Center. Retrieved 1 July 2014.
  7. ^ Yelton, Rick (2014). "Riley v. California: Setting the Stage for the Future of Privacy by Distinguishing Between Digital and Physical Data". Loy. L. Rev.: 1001.
  8. ^ Barnes, Robert (17 January 2014). "Supreme Court to decide case on police cellphone searches". The Washington Post. Retrieved 1 July 2014.
  9. ^ a b Fuchs, Erin (29 April 2014). "Supreme Court Hears Case That Could Open Up 'Every American's Life To The Police Department'". Business Insider. Retrieved 1 July 2014.
  10. ^ Riley v. California, 573 U.S. at ___ (slip op., at 28)
  11. ^ Riley v. California, 573 U. S., (slip op., at 10-11)
  12. ^ Riley v. California, 573 U. S., (slip op., at 13)
  13. ^ Riley v. California, 573 U. S., (slip op., at 14)
  14. ^ Riley v. California, 573 U. S., (slip op., at 28)
  15. ^ Riley v. California, 573 U. S., (Alito, S., concurring slip op., at 4)
  16. ^ Riley v. California, 573 U. S., (Alito, S., concurring slip op., at 4-5)
  17. ^ Riley v. California, 573 U. S., (Alito, S., concurring slip op., at 5)
  18. ^ Riley v. California, 573 U. S., (Alito, S., concurring slip op., at 6)
  19. ^ "Bahlul v. United States". Constitutional Accountability Center. Retrieved 1 July 2014.

Further reading[edit]

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