Civil and Human Rights

High court takes on cellphone searches

San Diego man’s phone connected him to a gang shooting


By Kristina Davis


SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take on a San Diego gang case that poses a growing legal question over warrantless cellphone searches by police.


The case involves the search of a smartphone after the 2009 arrest of David Leon Riley, which later connected him to a shooting.


The issue is ripe for a review by the high court because much of the case law on the subject is considered archaic in light of the wealth of personal information contained in modern phones today. 


Courts across the nation are split on the issue, and many who are watching the case closely hope the Supreme Court will make a definitive ruling that would harmonize the law and help shape police practices.


“We’re grateful that the Court has decided to take up the issue and look forward to arguing to the Court why the current practice in California unconstitutionally impinges on personal privacy,” Jeffrey Fisher, Riley’s lawyer and a Stanford Law School professor, said in an email.


In its conference Friday, the justices also decided to hear a similar case out of Boston regarding the warrantless search of a more basic flip phone.


In that case, officers who witnessed Brima Wurie dealing drugs searched through his call log, connecting call activity to a home that turned up a “hidden mother cache” of drugs, cash and guns, according to the petition filed with the Supreme Court. He was ultimately sentenced to nearly 22 years in prison.


Oral arguments will likely be this spring.


In the San Diego case, Riley was driving a Lexus when he was pulled over for having expired tags. When the officer learned Riley also had a suspended license, he ordered a tow for the car. As the officer searched the car to take inventory before the tow, he discovered two guns stashed in the engine compartment.


The officer arrested Riley and started scrolling through his Samsung smartphone, looking through his text messages and noticing hints of gang activity, according to his lawyer.


Hours later at the station, a gang detective searched through videos and photos on the phone.


One photo of a red Oldsmobile connected Riley to a shooting that had occurred in the Skyline neighborhood weeks earlier. No one was hit, but the flying bullets had caused the victim’s car to crash.


Police got other evidence, including ballistics, to charge him with attempted murder and other crimes, while the cellphone videos and photos helped prove the gang ties, his lawyers said.


Riley got 15 years in prison after a second jury convicted him; the first jury hung.


His attorney argued that the cellphone searches, which were done without a warrant, violated Riley’s Fourth Amendment right to unlawful search and seizure.


The attorneys in Riley’s case say police should be able to seize a cellphone upon arrest but should then obtain a warrant before sifting through the contents. 


The Constitutional Accountability Center was one of several organizations that submitted briefs to the high court in support of a review. 


“While the (Constitution’s) framers were chiefly concerned about authorities rifling through one’s personal effects in the home, the modern reality is that we carry much of our most personal information with us on our smartphones every day,” the center’s chief counsel, Elizabeth Wydra, said in an email Friday. “Having the justices determine the scope of Fourth Amendment protections related to searches of smartphones is incredibly important.”


The state Attorney General’s Office argued against the review, saying the courts in California are clear that a person’s arrest alone justifies a search. They also said other evidence, not the cellphone, is what got Riley convicted.

More from Civil and Human Rights