The Ritter & Randolph, LLC Blog

California Dreamin’

Continuing on with my digital/legal crossover theme…

Smartphones are ubiquitous. They are almost more universal than computers. In fact, the statistic is that 9 out of every 10 adults own a cell phone. And, as with everything in life, smartphones have legal implications. In a landmark decision, the SCOTUS in Riley v. California, affords the smartphone the status of a home computer. The SCOTUS held, just like it does by a regular home computer, that a warrantless search and seizure of digital contents of a cell phone during an arrest is unconstitutional.

Maintaining one of the underlying ideas behind a search-incident-to-arrest, the SCOTUS held that the digital contents do not threaten the safety of an officer and thus do not fall under that exception to the requirement of a warrant. Further, the court, in dicta, stated that some of the data on the device is actually not stored on the device itself; rather it is stored in the cloud. As such, the search-incident-to-arrest exception cannot stretch to cover a search of files which would be accessed remotely.

Regarding the other underlying idea of the search-incident-to-arrest exception, namely, the possibility of the destruction of evidence, the court did not feel that allowing a law enforcement agent to search the contents of a cell phone would be an effective broad solution; rather it could be assessed on a case by case basis under the exigent circumstances exception.

So, whether all the leaves are brown or the sky is gray, your smartphone has been afforded certain privacy interests and as such cannot be searched as per the supreme law of the land.