On June 25th, the Supreme Court issued a seminal decision addressing the convergence of privacy and the digital world.  The Court held that police cannot, without a warrant, under most circumstances, search data on a cell phone taken from someone who has been arrested (Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ___ (2014); Riley).  I’ve read the decision which touches on many Fourth Amendment questions.  I’m not going to summarize the entire decision but want, instead, to highlight some of the overarching pivotal privacy findings.

In reaching its decision, the Court explored the realities of today’s digital world within the context of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable warrantless searches by the government of people, their homes, papers and other effects.  The Court analyzed and compared the seismic differences between the search of a single document, or of a person who has been arrested, with a search of the enormous data capacity of a cell phone — and of the “quantitatively and qualitatively” different privacy implications between those types of searches. Riley, 573 U.S. ___, at 8-9, 18-20.  The Court also analyzed whether searching the data on a cell phone fell within the legally recognized exception to the warrant rule, i.e., the reasonableness of a warrantless search incident to a lawful arrest.

Briefly, here are some of the key privacy findings by the Court:

  1. The Court found that cell phones, and a search of them, are significantly different, raising corresponding privacy concerns, than searches of other objects.  In comparing a potential search of data on a cell phone to searches of individuals or other objects, the Court wrote that “[m]odern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.” (Riley, 573 U.S. ___, at 17).
  2. The Court found greater privacy considerations arise from a search of cell phone data precisely because of the volume and range of what can be collected and retained on a cell phone.  That very data capacity distinguishes that search from the search of, for example, an individual as the latter “…was limited by physical realities and tended as a general matter to constitute only a narrow intrusion on privacy.” (Riley, 573 U.S. ___, at 17).
  3. The Court’s opinion recognized the significance, from a privacy perspective, of the diversity and volume of data collected on a cell phone.  Unlike a single paper record or document, the sheer quantity and range of cell phone data can “…reveal much more in combination than any isolated record.” (Riley, 573 U.S. ___, at 18).  A person’s activities, locations, likes, and relationships can all be constructed from cell phone data. (Riley, 573 U.S. ___, at 18-21).
  4. Finally, the Court  noted “[t]o further complicate the scope of the privacy interests at stake, the data a user views on many modern cell phones may not in fact be stored on the device itself.  Treating a cell phone as a container whose contents may be searched incident to an arrest is a bit strained as an initial matter.” (Riley, 573 U.S. ___, at 21).

The Court’s opinion fully recognized the need for police to protect themselves or prevent arrested persons from escaping or that emergency situations could arise that require an immediate search of a cell phone.  (Riley, 573 U.S. ___, at 10-11, 25-27).  But absent those fact specific situations, police must have a warrant before searching cell phone data.

This decision establishes critical privacy protections by recognizing the central role cell phones occupy in today’s world — and their capacity for collecting and recording continuously so many inter-related aspects of our lives.