It is rare that a case is reported from today’s Supreme Court that is a unanimous decision. However, the opinion last month in Riley v. California shows how the Court is willing to extend Fourth Amendment protections against improper searches and seizures in the digital age.
The opinion by the Chief Justice indicates that Riley was stopped by police in California for a traffic violation, which led to his arrest on weapons charges. The police incident to his arrest seized a cell phone from his pocket, which the police accessed without a warrant. They found information linking him to a gang, and he was charged with and convicted of a recent gang related shooting. California’s highest court upheld the conviction.
The unanimous Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures prohibits the police from searching digital information from a cell phone without first obtaining a warrant. The Court concluded broadly that “cell phone differ in both a quantitative and qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.”
The opinion says that a cell phone is quantitatively different, even from written documents, because of the tremendous amount of digital information it contains. Its “immense storage capacity” allows storage of vast number of documents, photos or videos. A cell phone is qualitatively different from other property because of the private information stored or that may be accessed through the cell phone. As the Court said, “there is an element of pervasiveness that characterizes call phones but not physical records.”
This opinion suggests that this Court is willing to extend Fourth Amendment protections broadly as it hears more cases involving digital information.