A recent United States Supreme Court decision analyzed privacy and electronic evidence in a new and detailed way. The case was Riley v. California, and the opinion was issued on June 25, 2014.
The Riley case was about the police’s search of a cell phone without a warrant. David Riley was stopped for a traffic violation and his car was searched. After two handguns were found under the car’s hood, he was arrested. An officer then took Riley’s cell phone and searched fields and apps, finding evidence of references to a known gang. A more detailed search of the phone at the police station yielded more incriminating evidence in photos and videos.
The Supreme Court held that the police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from a person who has been arrested. The Court did not hold that the information on a cell phone was immune from a search by the government or others. Instead, the Court held only that a warrant is generally required before a search.
The Court made a point of discussing “the privacy interests at stake.” It began by commenting on current technology: “Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person… One of the most notable features of modern cell phones is their immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on privacy.” But modern cell phones can store “millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos.”
The Court’s notable comments about privacy continued on here:
The storage capacity of cell phones has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information…that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible... Third, data on the phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier… Finally, there is an element of pervasiveness that characterizes cell phones but not physical records. A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary… Today, by contrast, it is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.
Why was this such a landmark case? It’s so because the highest court in the land made a big deal of treating electronic searches differently than physical searches. The Riley decision would apply to police searches of phones, computers, tablets, digital cameras, flash drives, and all electronic devices that store digital information. The distinction made by the Court may mean that other guidelines on digital evidence searches could follow in the future.
For now, the Riley case confined itself to a warrantless search by police. It did not relate to civil cases like employment, family law, product liability or medical malpractice cases in which limited searches of phones may be sought under court rules. It also did not speak to a situation in which a phone is lost, stolen, or traded in.
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