Smart Phones: Dangerous Weapons?

In Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473, 2477, 189 L. Ed. 2d 430 (2014), the Supreme Court considered whether police officers could search the contents of a smart phone incident to an arrest. In Riley, an alleged gang member was arrested for possession of a concealed firearm. At the precinct, a police officer went through the arrestee’s smart phone looking for evidence of other crimes and found a picture of the arrestee next to a car connected to a drive-by-shooting.

Before determining whether the search violated the Fourth Amendment, the Court looked to a trilogy of case.

The first two cases, Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969) and U.S. v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973), held that searches incident to arrests are proper when necessary to protect evidence or officers.

The third, Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), held that police may search a vehicle when it is reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the crime of arrest may be found, including containers located in the vehicle.

The Supreme Court determined that none of the justifications in the above cases were present in Riley. Unlike Chimel and Robinson, neither the evidence, i.e., the phone, nor the officers were in danger. While officers may examine the physical aspects of the phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, a phone, once secured, poses no threat. Further, multiple options are available to prevent the destruction of evidence without invading the privacy of the arrestee, such as disconnecting the phone from the network or placing the phone in a “Faraday bag.”

The Court also considered the prosecution’s argument based upon Gant, which compared a cell phone to a physical container. In rejecting this rationale, the Court commented that classifying a smart phone as a physical container is “like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon. Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together.” The Court’s analysis was informed by the vast storage capacity of the modern cell phone.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court held that a smart phone could not be searched incident to arrest under the facts of the case. It will be interesting to observe the extent to which the Court’s acknowledgment of the privacy concerns involved in smart phone technology may creep into civil discovery and evidentiary disputes.


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