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Riley v. California (U.S. Sup. Ct.)

On August 30, 2013, Constitutional Accountability Center filed an amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court in support of the Petition for a Writ of Certiorari in David Leon Riley v. State of California, a case with important implications for the scope of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.  At issue in Riley is whether, and under what circumstances, the police may conduct a warrantless search of a person’s cell phone upon that person’s arrest. When petitioner David Riley was arrested, police officers seized his cell phone and performed two separate searches of the phone in the absence of a warrant and exigent circumstances, first at the scene of the arrest and then hours later at the police station.  The California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision to uphold the searches.

In our brief, we urged the Supreme Court to grant certiorari – to agree to hear the case – and to hold that such warrantless searches fundamentally contradict constitutional text and history. The Fourth Amendment broadly protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and also provides that warrants that do not specifically describe the place to be searched, or the persons or things to be seized, should not be issued. When the Framers adopted the Fourth Amendment, they were responding, in large part, to the British use of “general warrants” and “writs of assistance.”  These writs and warrants lacked any specificity about the people or items to be searched and were not predicated on any individualized suspicion.  Essentially unlimited in scope, these warrants and writs provided the officers executing them virtually unfettered discretion to engage in broad searches of a person’s home and the personal papers and effects in that home.  As detailed in our brief, the Framers drafted the text of the Fourth Amendment in order to protect citizens against such broad, generalized searches, and to strip the government of the arbitrary power to rifle through a person’s belongings in the hope of finding something incriminating.                              

The practice permitted by the lower courts in Riley plainly violates this fundamental Fourth Amendment precept.  Although the police may sometimes conduct warrantless searches after a lawful arrest, the traditional justifications for such searches were not present in Riley’s case. Moreover, because modern cell phones generally contain vast stores of information, including private communications and photographs, the intrusion into an individual’s privacy when police rummage through the contents of a smart phone is substantial.  By permitting law enforcement officers to look through the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant and in the absence of recognized exigent circumstances, the decision by the state court in this case invites the police to engage in the same sort of generalized searches that the Framers despised—and adopted the Fourth Amendment to prevent.

On January 17, 2014, the Court granted cert in Riley as CAC had urged and will hear oral argument on April 29, 2014.