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
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT