Anniversary of Riley v. California

Today marks the 3rd anniversary of the landmark decision in Riley v California in which the Supreme Court unanimously held that a warrantless search and seizure of the digital contents of cell phones during an arrest is unconstitutional.


The Cases

The cases that eventually became the basis of the decision in Riley v. California[1] are interesting to say the least, and highlight why a Supreme Court decision on the matter was vital in settling the question of the constitutionality of these warrantless searches.

The first case, which became the namesake of the decision was the case of Riley v California[2]. In this case, David Leon Riley was pulled over for displaying an expired registration, a quick search of Riley’s records revealed that he was driving with a suspended license. The policy for the San Diego police at the time required that officers impound vehicles driven by those with suspended driver’s licenses to prevent them from driving, and required the officer to perform an inventory search of the vehicle as authorized by a previous Supreme Court case of South Dakota v. Opperman[3][4]. During the search of the vehicle, the officer discovered two handguns hidden in the vehicles engine block. Subsequent ballistic testing revealed that the guns had been used in a gang related murder earlier that month in which David Riley had been the primary suspect.  The officer not knowing that Riley had been the prime suspect and finding the hidden weapons with gang related paraphernalia in the car, arrested David Riley. During the arrest, the Officer searched David Riley’s cell phone finding pictures of Riley in gang outfits, brandishing the weapons found in the vehicle, and Riley driving a different vehicle which would later be identified as the vehicle used in the gang shooting. The officer also found text messages in which Riley admitted, and bragged about his responsibility for the murder. Based in part on the pictures and text messages obtained from the search of David Riley’s phone, Riley was convicted for murder, and subsequently re-convicted of murder in his retrial.

The second case which was consolidated with Riley was far less dramatic but further highlighted the need for the Supreme Court to address the issue. In United States v. Wurie[5], Brima Wurie was arrested after an officer observed him conducting a drug deal. When Wurie was taken to jail, his two cell phones were seized. Subsequently one of the phones began receiving multiple calls from a contact identified as “My House”. Police opened the phone, obtained the number and traced the call to an apartment complex. Police obtained a search warrant, and in a subsequent raid on the apartment found 215 grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, firearms, ammunition, and a substantial amount of cash. Wurie was later charged and convicted with multiple drug and firearm offenses.

The Argument

The arguments made by both defendants at trial and on subsequent appeals were essentially identical. Both Riley and Wurie argued that the evidence obtained from the phone should be suppressed because the phones had been searched without a warrant in violation of the fourth amendment, and without a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. Both defendant’s arguments were overruled at the trial level. However, Wurie won his appeal at the First Circuit Court of Appeals and had his conviction reversed although the State would appeal that verdict to the Supreme Court, where Riley’s appeals argument was denied at both the Applet level and  at the California Supreme Court[6]. The State’s argument in both cases were also identical. In both cases, the State argued that the evidence was admissible because the warrantless searching of the phone was permitted under the exception to the warrant requirement known as the “Search Incident to Lawful Arrest” or SITLA.

SITLA’s were established as an exception to the warrant requirement by the Supreme Court in the case of Chimel v. California[7]. In Chimel[8] the Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision held that Police may search the person of someone who is lawfully arrested, and search the area in the immediate around the suspect and any containers were the person could hide a weapon or hide and destroy evidence. The State in both Wurie, and Riley argued that the cell phone was analogous to a container where the suspect could hide and destroy evidence, and thus were permitted to search the phones of those arrested without a warrant.

The Supreme Court heard arguments April 29th, 2014, after granting certiorari and consolidating both cases. At the Supreme Court, lawyers for Riley and Wurie argued that the search of phones is distinguishable from the search of containers authorized by Chimel. Lawyers argued that phones do not pose a danger to police officers, a fundamental reason why officers are allowed to search containers during a SITLA. The lawyers further argued that warrantless searches of suspects phones would open every American to possible searches of their phone for minor offenses wholly unrelated to the reason why they are arrested. Finally, Lawyers argued that there was a split between the Federal Appeals Courts over the warrant requirement with most requiring the police to obtain a warrant to search a suspect’s cell phone. The State once again argued that SITLA allows the state to search containers in the immediate area of an arrested suspect to prevent the suspect from obtaining a weapon or destroying evidence.

The Decision

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court rendered their judgment June 25th, 2014. Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinion for the Court accepting Riley and Wurie’s argument that data on a phone cannot be a weapon, and thus is distinguishable from the justification for the warrantless search authorized by Chimel. Chief Justice Roberts went on to take apart the States argument. The Supreme Court held that while there is a risk that a suspect could destroy evidence contained on a phone, such risk exists from remote sources rather than by the defendants own hands after the arrest is conducted. Further the Supreme Court held that while the risk of evidence being destroyed exist, technological advances in data retrieval have advanced to such a point that erased data could be recovered if and when police obtain a warrant to search the phone, thus the States argument lacked the justification for preserving evidence.


The Supreme Court insured that our phones are secure and protected by the fourth amendment. This ruling has become increasingly important as the digital age marches on. Riley stands as a shining example of how the Supreme Court, though partisan in ideology, is united in the core principles of the Constitution. Subsequent decision by Federal and State Appellate courts have fleshed out the fine details of when police can search your phone, and even search it without a warrant. However, the fundamental principle has been settled, your phone cannot be searched without a warrant. Vigorous Legal representation is still required though to ensure that the State abides by the firm judgment of the Supreme Court.

Written by Hunter White

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[2] Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014)


[4] South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 96 S. Ct. 3092 (1976)

[5] United States v. Wurie, 728 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2013)

[6] People v. Riley, No. S209350, 2013 Cal. LEXIS 3714 (May 1, 2013)

[7] Chimel v. Cal., 395 U.S. 752, 89 S. Ct. 2034 (1969)