2013-14 Supreme Court Term, Part 6: Riley v. California


Part 6 of an occasional series on the recently completed Supreme Court Term detailing the most important cases (in my judgement, of course) and their likely impact. See Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

  • Riley v. California Another unanimous decision, this is a Fourth amendment Search and Seizure case. The case joins Riley v. California with U.S. v. Wurie. Riley was stopped for a traffic violation, which led to his arrest on weapons charges. His cellphone was seized and, upon examination, was seen to repeatedly use terminology associated with gang membership. A detective specializing in gangs examined the photos and videos on the phone leading to Riley being charged a gang shooting and seeking an enhanced sentence due to gang membership. Riley attempted to block the use of the cellphone data in evidence, was denied, and was tried and convicted. Wurie was arrested following being seen doing an alleged drug deal. His phone, when seized, was ringing with the label “my house.” Police determined the address of the associated phone number, obtained a warrant and searched the apartment where they found drugs, cash and weapons. Wurie attempted to block the use of the cellphone data in trial court, was denied, tried and convicted. On appeal, the First Circuit reversed the denial of the Motion to Suppress and vacated the associated convictions. To resolve the problem of the split Circuits, the Court held (Roberts, CJ, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, JJ) the police must obtain a warrant to use data held on a cellphone. Alito, J, writes a separate assent concurring in part and in judgement, but observes the Court has enacted, perhaps unintentionally, two classes of admissible evidence based on their storage media. The example he uses is a person arrested with a land-line phone bill in their pocket, containing a item for an incriminating phone call, and an incriminating photograph in his wallet, could have such evidence made admissible in the absence of a warrant, while the identical data stored on a cellphone would not be; and argues legislatures would be well advised to enact categories of evidence, ie. photos or phone numbers, which would be admissible without a warrant in all cases, while other categories would not be, regardless of how they were stored.

While this is one of the most important cases of the year– maybe the decade– the Court’s opinion (Roberts, joined by everybody except Alito who joined in part and concurred in judgement) doesn’t have a lot of meat to it. It’s very straightforward, and doesn’t break much in the way of new ground. In general, cops are allowed to search your person without a warrant if you are arrested for anything, and if they find something incriminating when they do, they can use it to prosecute you even if the incriminating evidence has nothing to do with the original reason you were arrested. This is straightforward, and has been the law for a long time now. It really can’t be done effectively in any other manner. If they arrest you, that means you’re going first in their car, and then to jail, at least until you make bail. Cops have a right not to be shot in the back while you’re in the car, and they don’t want switchblades hanging out in the jailhouse, so this all makes sense. It’s also possible to argue if you’re fool enough to carry incriminating evidence around with you, you deserve what you get if you attract the attention of the upstanding stalwarts of the local constabulary. Basically, the court has ruled cell phones, with their now-vast data storage capacity, are fundamentally different things than a scrap of paper with a phone number on it you might have in your wallet. Your cell phone knows a very great deal about you; you music,  the websites you frequent, which periodicals you subscribe to, your financial information, what you buy on eBay, pretty much everything. So to protect privacy rights, the Court sees this as something the cops should require a judge to sign off on a warrant in order to obtain before they can use it, as this would have been the case in the days before everybody started carrying an electronic file cabinet on their hip. I agree with them. Wholeheartedly.

Having said that, Alito in his separate assent has a valid point as well.  He fears the Court has created two separate classes of evidence based solely on storage media rather than contents. I am not certain how far I want to go with that, but I can’t argue the point. Alito’s suggested remedy is for legislatures to define classes of evidence which are always admissible, regardless of how stored, and others which require a warrant. That is to say, photos and phone calls might be always available, while bank records and internet purchases would require a warrant, or something of that nature. This is worth thinking about anyway. It’s perilous to trust a legislature, of course, but they are the tool we have and it is easy to foresee injustice arising from the Court’s opinion in this regard.

Again, the import of this one is pretty self evident. Essentially, it extends the the Fourth amendment into the digital age. It’s good the Court is tackling this, we need it. Technology has changed. The right to privacy– and the need for it– has not.

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themaskedblogger is a native born Texan, a registered voter and possessed of some minimal ability to read, write and think.

Posted in Courts
One comment on “2013-14 Supreme Court Term, Part 6: Riley v. California
  1. […] Part 7 of an occasional series on the recently completed Supreme Court Term detailing the most important cases (in my judgement, of course) and their likely impact. See Parts 1, 2, 3, 4,  5 and 6. […]

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