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Supreme Court upholds warrants for cell phone searches

By Sara McManamy-Johnson sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:42 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that police must obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a cell phone seized from someone who has been arrested.

An exception is a true emergency situation.

The ruling mirrors a Tennessee bill signed into law in May.

The Tennessee bill, sponsored by Sen. Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), also prohibited law enforcement officers from searching cell phones without a warrant.

“I think [cell phone privacy] is very much on people’s minds,” said Beavers. “Our phones are not just phones anymore; they have lots of personal information on them.”

She said she was “delighted” to hear of the Supreme Court’s decision.

“It should make Tennesseans and Americans feel better about our privacy,” said Beavers.

The Supreme Court’s Wednesday decision stems from the case Riley v. California, which arose from a routine traffic stop.

In the incident, David Leon Riley, the petitioner, was stopped for traffic violations, which eventually led to his arrest on weapons charges, according to court records. An officer searching Riley's vehicles seized a cell phone from his pocket.

The officer accessed information on the phone and noticed the repeated use of a term associated with a street gang, according to court records. Two hours later, at the police station, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the phone's digital contents.

Based in part on photographs and videos the detective found, the state charged Riley with a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier and sought an enhanced sentence based on his purported gang membership, according to court records.

Riley moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone. The trial court denied the motion and Riley was convicted. The California Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.

In another related incident, a respondent was arrested after officers observed him participate in an apparent drug sale. At the station, officers seized a cell phone from the respondent and noticed the phone was receiving multiple calls from a source identified as "my house" on its external screen.

Chief Justice John Roberts authored the court's opinion. Roberts stated that the Court recognizes the impact its decision will have on law enforcement’s ability to combat crime, but he also noted that “[p]rivacy comes at a cost.”

“Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest,” stated Roberts.

Cell phones hold for many Americans "the privacies of life," Roberts stated.

"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," Roberts stated.

The American Civil Liberties Union had filed an amicus brief in Riley v. California. Steven Shapiro, the national legal director of the ACLU, said the decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans.

"We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognized, our old values still apply and limit the government's ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives," Shapiro said.

Roberts further stated a warrantless search is reasonable only in exigent circumstances, a well-established exception to the Fourth Amendment. He noted, though, that it would be up to a court to later determine whether exigent circumstances in fact existed in the specific case.

“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,” stated Roberts.

Mark Schlachtenhaufen of The Edmond Sun (Edmon, Okla.) contributed to this report via MCT.

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