Riley v. California: Constitutional Reasonableness and Digital Device Searches

By: Adam Lamparello & Charles MacLean[1]

August 6, 2014

 

In an era of metadata collection and warrantless searches of laptops at the border, the Supreme Court recognized that privacy—and the Fourth Amendment—still matter.

A. The Court’s Opinion

In Riley v. California,[2] the defendant was stopped for having expired registration tags and arrested when law enforcement officers discovered that the defendant’s license had expired.[3] After the arrest, a detective conducted a warrantless search of the defendant’s Smartphone and discovered incriminating evidence that led to charges of assault and attempted murder.[4]

Relying on the search incident to arrest doctrine, the lower courts rejected the defendant’s Fourth Amendment challenge, holding that officer safety and evidence preservation justified the search of defendant’s Smartphone.[5]

The Supreme Court granted certiorari—and unanimously reversed.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts held that the two objectives underlying the search incident to arrest doctrine were not implicated in the cell phone context.[6] Chief Justice Roberts also rejected the Government’s argument that Smartphones were analogous to physical objects such as containers and cigarette packs, stating to it was akin to “saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.”[7]

Justice Roberts also recognized that, unlike finite physical objects, Smartphones can store “millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos,”[8] which makes them different “in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person.”[9] In fact, “even the most basic phones that sell for less than $20 might hold photographs, picture messages, text messages, Internet browsing history, a calendar, [and] a thousand-entry phone book.”[10]

As such, “the sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet.”[11] Moreover, because of their immense storage capacity, “cell phone searches would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house, and contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form—unless the phone is.”[12]

Based on these considerations, the Court held that the search violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, which “was the founding generation’s response to the reviled ‘general warrants’ and ‘writs of assistance’ of the colonial era . . . [and] allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.”[13]

Riley is a victory for privacy rights and shows that law enforcement’s investigatory powers are not without limits. Time will tell whether the Court’s reasoning will have implications for future cases involving, for example, the Government’s warrantless search of laptops at the border and indiscriminate collection of metadata. What we know now is that times have changed.

B. What Does Riley Mean for Privacy?

In their upcoming article, Professors MacLean and Lamparello will analyze the implications of Rileyin various contexts where expanding surveillance by the Government threatens to infringe individual privacy rights. They will analyze, among other things, the current circuit split regarding the warrantless—and suspicionless—collection of metadata, and discuss the extent to which the National Security Agency can continue to monitor and track metadata, email, internet browser histories, and other communications data both domestically and abroad.

Professors MacLean and Lamparello will argue that, although Rileyis a victory for privacy rights, there is reason to be cautious. Chief Justice John Roberts has taken a minimalist approach to constitutional adjudication and often strives to decide cases on the narrowest grounds possible.[14] In addition, the basis upon which Riley was decided—reasonableness—may be difficult to apply in contexts where the Government’s interest is heightened, the search is less intrusive than, for example, the search of a cell phone, and occurs in places where an individual’s expectations are privacy are diminished.

Ultimately, the authors will argue that the Court’s jurisprudence will proceed incrementally. Although the Court will increasingly safeguard privacy rights, it will not be able to keep pace with the speed of technology and the efforts by Government officials to increase the scope and breadth of their surveillance power. The authors will propose a detailed legislative solution that includes, among other things: (1) the privacy expectation that citizens should have in various contexts; (2) the levels of suspicion that the Government must satisfy before performing various searches; (3) and the circumstances, if any, when the interest in national security will outweigh a legitimate or diminished expectation of privacy. In so doing, the authors will provide a solution that they believe can guide lawmakers, citizens, and courts as the technology era increasingly implicates complex question about the balance between civil liberties and national security.

 

 

 

 

[1] Professors Charles E. MacLean and Adam Lamparello of Indiana Tech Law School filed an amicus brief in the case supporting Riley’s argument. The Professors argued that the search incident to arrest doctrine did not apply because: (1) cell phones, unlike other physical objects, could not be used as weapons; and (2) the risk that evidence would be destroyed, through either remote wiping or data encryption, was minimal and easily manageable. The authors have also written rather broadly in this area, including: Charles E. MacLean & Adam Lamparello, Abidor v. Napolitano: Suspicionless Cell Phone and Laptop “Strip” Searches at the Border Compromise the Fourth and First Amendments, 108 Nw. U. L. Rev. Colloquy 280 (Spring 2014); Adam Lamparello & Charles E. MacLean, Back to the Future: Returning to Reasonableness and Particularity under the Fourth Amendment, 99 Iowa L. Rev. Bull. 101 (Spring 2014); Katz on a Hot Tin Roof: The Reasonable Expectation of Privacy Doctrine is Rudderless in the Digital Age, unless Congress Continually Resets the Privacy Bar, 24 Albany L.J. Sci. & Tech. 47 (Spring 2014). The authors’ full article addressing the implications of the Riley decision will be published this fall in Volume 20 of the Richmond Journal of Law and Technology.

[2] Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014).

[3] See id. at 2480.

[4] See id. at 2480-81.

[5] See id. at 2481.

[6] See id. at 2485-87.

[7] Id. at 2488.

[8] Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473, 2489 (2014).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 2491.

[13] Id. at 2494.

[14] See University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog, Chief Justice Roberts and Minimalism, (May 25, 2006), available at: http://uchicagolaw.typepad.com/faculty/2006/05/chief_justice_r.html.

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