Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Cell phone ruling keeps cops out of your business

By Danny Cevallos
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1308 GMT (2108 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Supreme Court unanimously rules that cops can't search a cell phone without a warrant
  • Danny Cevallos says people should pay more attention to Fourth Amendment cases
  • He says phones can still be checked to make sure they're not being used as weapons
  • Cevallos: Court affirms Fourth Amendment passed to limit ability of law enforcement to search

Editor's note: Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst, criminal defense attorney and partner at Cevallos & Wong, practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter: @CevallosLaw. This article was adapted from a commentary that first appeared in April. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling in two cases testing the authority of police to conduct a warrantless search of an arrested person's cell phone, holding that police generally must obtain a warrant before searching the cell phone of someone they arrest.

For the most part, the justices' rulings in cases dealing with the Fourth Amendment go largely unnoticed by the public, but the court has reminded us in this opinion that modern technology is subject to the same original privacy rights that flow from the Constitution.

Danny Cevallos
Danny Cevallos
Hands off our data

Most citizens are not interested in these cases the way they are in issues like same-sex marriage or gun control. On the whole, Americans don't worry too much about search-and-seizure issues because they think these cases don't apply to them.

"Those cases only apply to criminals."

"I'm not planning on getting arrested."

"I have nothing to hide."

The sentiment is understandable. Most of these cases involve application of the "exclusionary rule" to throw out evidence like guns or drugs, based on the way it was seized.

But this does not mean that only criminal defendants have an interest here. The rest of us should pay attention for two reasons. First, most people don't realize how easy it is for the police to arrest a person and seize his or her property. Second, our private information is no longer on a piece of paper in a safe. It's in the form of data, and it's on our person, or in that thing they call the "cloud." If police can access your cell phone without a warrant, they can access your entire life.

Supreme Court: Warrants for cell phones
NSA phone surveillance unconstitutional?
Sen. Paul files suit against NSA, Obama
Snowden: 4th amendment changed

Don't believe me? What's in your cell phone right now? Is there anything you wouldn't want a stranger swiping through? How about the apps on your phone? Do you do any banking or other transactions on there? Cell phones not only contain data -- they are now becoming a portal beyond the device itself, into a third-party world, whether that's your health information, your finances, or anything else out there in the cloud.

And if you're like most people, you're not immune to arrest. Police can potentially arrest you for minor infractions like littering, jaywalking, and traffic offenses. And just because they arrest you, should they be able to swipe through your pictures and text messages? Police can search containers on your person without a warrant if they contain evidence that might be destroyed, or a potential weapon. Unless you can throw your iPhone like a ninja shuriken, it's probably not much of a weapon.

The two cases decided Wednesday by the Supreme Court involved somewhat different factual situations.

In Riley v. California, the case involved a stop for a traffic violation, which led to David Riley's arrest on weapons charges. An officer performed a "search incident to arrest" (one conducted without a warrant) and accessed information on a phone in Riley's pocket. He saw on the phone the repeated use of gang terminology. A later search at the station of the phone's digital contents led to Riley being charged in a gang shooting.

The United States v. Wurie case involved an arrest after police observed Brima Wurie engage in a drug sale. As in Riley, the officers seized a cell phone and noticed on the screen that the phone was receiving multiple calls from "my house." The officers opened the phone, traced the "my house" number to an apartment, obtained a search warrant and found drugs, a firearm and other bad stuff.

In deciding these two appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that the police generally may not, absent a warrant, search digital information on a mobile phone seized from an arrestee.

Officers may still examine the physical aspects of a cell phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon -- which is a definite possibility due to modern criminal ingenuity. But the Supreme Court has now announced that absent certain urgent circumstances, the actual data on a phone is never physically dangerous. You can't throw an emoji at anyone, or stab someone with a Snapchat. Citizens enjoy more substantial privacy interests when digital data is involved, says the court.

The Supreme Court ruling in the Riley case says American jurisprudence has "recognized that the Fourth Amendment was the founding generation's response to the reviled 'general warrants' and 'writs of assistance' of the colonial era, which allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity. Opposition to such searches was in fact one of the driving forces behind the Revolution itself."

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

Part of complete coverage on
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT