Fourth Amendment: Warrantless Searches Incident to Arrest

Although it is longstanding precedent that police do not need a warrant to search a suspect incident to that suspect’s arrest, the Court limited the scope of those permissible warrantless searches in Riley v. California. In Riley, the Court unanimously held that the police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized incident to an arrest. In Riley the Court consolidated two cases with roughly the same facts. In the first, petitioner Riley was convicted for his involvement in a gang shooting after police searched his cell phone’s photos, contacts, and messages incident to an arrest for possession of a concealed, loaded weapon. The California Court of Appeal affirmed his conviction, and the California Supreme Court denied review.

In the second case, after seizing respondent Wurie’s cell phone incident to his arrest for drug dealing, police discovered Wurie’s home address by checking his cell phone’s contacts. Police then executed a valid search warrant to search Wurie’s home where they discovered 215 grams of crack cocaine and other contraband. The district court denied Wurie’s motion to suppress the evidence seized at his home as fruit of the poisonous tree of the warrantless search of his cell phone. The First Circuit reversed Wurie’s motion to suppress and vacated his conviction.

In a unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court held that the searches of Riley’s and Wurie’s cell phones violated their Fourth Amendment rights. Although acknowledging its previous holding in Chimel v. California that police do not need a warrant to search a suspect incident to his arrest, the Court distinguished that case—in which police searched a cigarette pack found on the suspect—from the search of a cell phone. The Court emphasized two reasons that searching the digital information contained on a cell phone is different from a simple search and seizure of ordinary physical objects. First, the digital data does not present either of the risks Chimel sought to address, namely officer safety and destruction of evidence. Second, the Court emphasized the heightened privacy interests at stake when dealing with digital information stored on a cell phone, noting the qualitative and quantitative differences between digital data and physical objects.

This case is one of several cases that have arisen in the twenty-first century responding to advances in technology and its role in criminal investigations (for example, in United States v. Jones the Court held that installing a GPS tracking device on a person’s car constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment; and in Kyllo v. United States the Court held that the use of a thermal imaging device from a public vantage point to monitor the radiation of heat from a person’s home was a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment). As Americans’ lives become more public and police agencies become more technologically sophisticated, the Court’s role in balancing the interests of privacy and law enforcement continues to be vital.