Court: Police Need Warrant to Search Phone. But Guess What? They Get to Keep Your Phone While They Get One.
Will cops still get access to cell phone data post arrest? You bet. Today’s Supreme Court decision just means they need to get permission from a judge before they start searching who you have been texting. And odds are very good, that permission will be granted.
In a unanimous decision authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the United States Supreme Court held that law enforcement officers may not conduct warrantlesssearches of cell phones that are seized incident to an arrest. But just because police cannot immediately search mobile phones, doesn’t mean they cannot immediately seize them in connection with an arrest. Indeed, the benefit of today’s decision by our country’s highest court may be limited to the two defendants who brought the case (and of course any similarly situated defendants).
The named defendant in Riley v California is David Riley. After Riley was stopped for a traffic violation, he was arrested and the police officer seized his cell phone incident to that arrest. When the officer accessed the data on the phone (without a search warrant), he noticed the repeated use of an identifier associated with the Bloods street gang. Later, a detective reviewed the cell phone records and noticed gang-related content, including a photo of Riley standing in front of a car that was used in a shooting weeks earlier. Riley was convicted of multiple crimes related to that shooting and received a sentence of 15 years to life.
The second case resolved today involved Brima Wurie, who had been arrested in connection with a drug sale. After Wurie’s arrest, police took him to the police station where officers confiscated his flip phone. A few minutes later, Wurie’s phone showed an incoming call from “my house.” The officers opened the phone, accessed the call log to determine the number of the incoming call, and then traced the number back to Wurie’s apartment, which they secured. After obtaining a search warrant, the officers searched the apartment and seized drugs, a gun, ammunition, and cash. At trial, Wurie was convicted on three drug-related counts and sentenced to more than twenty years in prison.
The key here to note is that in neither case did law enforcement obtain prior permission to search the cell phones belonging to Riley and Wurie. The narrow question presented to the Court therefore was whether it is permissible for law enforcement to search cell phone data incident to an arrest where no court has authorized such a search. In holding that such a search violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, the Court considered but rejected as not relevant prior cases where so-called “warrantless” searches passed constitutional muster. For example,
· In Chimel v. California, the Court recognized that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless searches of the arrestee and areas within his immediate control if necessary to protect officer safety or to preserve evidence.
· In Arizona v. Gant, the Court held that officers may search a car incident to arrest if the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment or if the officer reasonably believes evidence of the crime of arrest may be found.
Because there were no such exigent circumstances present in Riley or Wurie’s arrest, the Court concluded that the need for cell phone data searches does not outweigh the corresponding intrusion on individual privacy, and thus a warrant was required. This of course is the right result. Digital cell phone data does not, by itself, of course, threaten officer safety. And a warrantless search of cell phone data is not necessary to preserve evidence. The Court recognized an individual’s privacy interest in digital cell phone data is considerable: cell phones have immense storage capacity, collect many types of records in one place, and often contain years’ worth of data.
In this regard, today’s decision is a victory for privacy rights. Law enforcement officers will not be permitted to conduct warrantless searches of cell phones for digital evidence. But if you are arrested, don’t assume law enforcement will let you keep your phone. Today’s decision may not allow for a warrantless search of your phone, but there is nothing prohibiting law enforcement from securing a phone post-arrest and seeking permission from a court to search it. And the chances that a court will grant such a request are close to 100%.
President Obama’s February 12 State of the Union address included the announcement of an executive order intended to permit greater sharing of information about possible threats to the nation’s cyber security among private companies and between private companies and the government.
“We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets,” Obama said in the speech. “Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems.”
The executive order permits businesses to enter voluntary information-sharing agreements in which they provide the government with information about possible cyber threats to the grid. In return, the government is permitted to provide private companies with classified technical information.
This is an admirable goal, and we support the president’s efforts to keep the nation safe in this way. However, it’s not the end of the story.
Last year, legislation was introduced in Congress to provide protection from liability to companies that share information about possible cyber attacks with each other and with the government. That legislation, however, did not pass, and some form of it will be introduced again this year. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the new chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has pledged to make a cyber security bill a high priority.
One important aspect of possible legislation of this type is whether it contains adequate safeguards to protect privacy. Last year, privacy advocates pointed out that in the name of protecting the nation against cyber threats, many versions of the bill contained provisions that allowed for “nearly unlimited monitoring of user data.”
If a final bill contains adequate privacy safeguards, we would support it, along with the executive order, as a means of keeping the nation safe.
After a nearly decade-long legal battle, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is seeking to dismiss once and for all the privacy suit of Richard Convertino, a former federal prosecutor in Detroit who alleges that the DOJ illegally gave the press details of an internal investigation into his alleged misconduct.
In February 2004, Convertino filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that DOJ officials provided information to a newspaper reporter about the internal ethics investigation. Convertino accused the DOJ of giving David Ashenfelter, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, confidential information relating to Convertino’s alleged mishandling of a terror-related case.
In that underlying case, the convictions of the alleged terrorists were overturned amidst allegations that Convertino unlawfully withheld evidence from defense lawyers when he prosecuted the case. The ensuing internal DOJ inquiry into Convertino’s conduct was meant to be confidential, but was leaked to the press through unknown, anonymous sources at the DOJ. Ultimately, the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct against Convertino were not substantiated.
Convertino spent nearly eight years attempting to ascertain Ashenfelter’s anonymous sources, but the reporter consistently refused to name them and invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. The district court finally dismissed Convertino’s privacy case last year, saying “there is simply no reason to believe that yet another delay in this case will result in discovery of that information.” Convertino appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Earlier this month, the DOJ asked the court of appeals to uphold the dismissal.
In this situation, Convertino’s right to pursue privacy violations by the DOJ sits squarely in opposition to Ashenfelter’s right to plead the Fifth Amendment. Although the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General performed an inquiry, it was unable to determine which DOJ employee was the source of the leak. As a result of his inability to confront the source, Convertino’s reputation and career will forever be tarnished by anonymous accusations of wrongdoing.
It is ironic that the department whose duty is to enforce the law and bring about justice has failed to do justice to Convertino. One of its employees disclosed confidential agency information to the press and will apparently go scot free. Unless the D.C. Circuit reverses the district court’s decision, the federal government will not be held accountable for violating Convertino’s privacy. The Court of Appeals should reverse and allow Convertino to continue his efforts to discover who leaked the information, and how the DOJ allowed it to happen.
The D.C. Circuit is scheduled to hear the Convertino case on March 12.
Federal Criminal (Other)