This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court released a landmark decision in the cases of Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie. It recognized that cell phones are fundamentally different from the other stuff you keep in your pockets.
In a unanimous ruling, rare for a major constitutional case, the Court said that the traditional law allowing warrantless searches after arrest did not apply to cell phone data. It recognized the significant privacy interest in cell phones, calling them a part of the human anatomy.
Law enforcement argued that prisoners are always searched after being arrested, for reasons of officer safety. But as the Court explained, “digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape.” This is now a candidate for the award of Most Obvious Legal Point Ever Made.
Riley and Wurie will inevitably influence the thinking of Canada’s Supreme Court as it decides the same point in R. v. Fearon, on reserve since last month. One of the main issues in Fearon is whether the police concern about what the defendant’s so-called “partners in crime” were doing justified the search of his cell phone. According to Riley, the answer is no: searches after arrest are focused on the arrestee. They cannot be justified by concerns about what a third party might be up to.
Late last year the Supreme Court finally admitted that computers are more private than other searchable items like cupboards and filing cabinets. This was a step in the right direction. Riley and Wurie are another. Progress is coming to privacy law, slowly but surely.