Riley v. California: Warrantless Cell Phone Search (06/25/14)


Riley v. California

Was the evidence admitted at trial from Riley’s cell phone discovered through a search that violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches?

Argued: 04/29/2014

Decision Date: 06/25/2014

Decision Record: 9-0; yes

Justices in Favor: John Roberts (RC*), Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy (LC), Clarence Thomas (R), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (L), Stephen Breyer (L), Samuel Alito (R), Sonia Sotomayor (L), Elena Kagan (LC)

Justices Dissenting: None


Effect of the Decision

This case holds that warrantless cell phone searches are a violation of the Fourth Amendment.


In Favor

In representation of Riley, attorney Jeffrey L. Fisher argued, “This case involves applying the core protection of the Fourth Amendment to a new factual circumstance.

It has always been the case that an occasion of an arrest did not give the police officers authority to search through the private papers and the drawers and bureaus and cabinets of somebody’s house, and that protection should not evaporate more than 200 years after the founding because we have the technological development of smartphones that have resulted in people carrying that information in their pockets.”


Then in opposition, representing the state of California, attorney Edward C. DuMont said, “As Mr. Fisher has said, if Mr. Riley had been carrying physical photographs in his pocket at the time of his arrest, there’s no dispute that arresting officers could have looked at those photographs to see whether they contained evidence of crime.

Now, what would have been reasonable in that situation does not become constitutionally unreasonable simply because Mr. Riley instead carried his photographs in digital form on a smartphone.

The shifted digital format does not make the photographs any less his papers.”


The majority in this case was unanimous on the side of Riley. In the opinion slip, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, he said, “

Our cases have recognized that the Fourth Amendment was the founding generation’s response to the reviled “general warrants” and “writs of assistance” of the colonial era, which allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity. Opposition to such searches was in fact one of the driving forces behind the Revolution itself. In 1761, the patriot James Otis delivered a speech in Boston denouncing the use of writs of assistance. A young John Adams was there, and he would later write that “[e]very man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.” 10 Works of John Adams 247–248 (C. Adams ed. 1856). According to Adams, Otis’s speech was “the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born.” Id., at 248 (quoted in Boyd v. United States, 116 U. S. 616, 625 (1886) ).

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life,” Boyd, supra, at 630. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority. A warrantless phone search violates a person’s Fourth Amendment rights, which protects a person from unreasonable searches. The Fourth Amendment also requires a warrant in order for the police to search someone or something. Not only does a warrantless phone search violate a person’s constitutional right, but also their privacy. Unless the police has a warrant to search the phone, then searching the phone would be considered a violation of one’s privacy.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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