Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Cell phone ruling keeps cops out of your business

By Danny Cevallos
updated 9:08 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
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
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
updated 5:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
updated 5:25 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT