SCOTUS decision protecting cell phone data marks efforts to modernize law with technology

Breanne Deppisch

Twenty years ago, this case would have read like a science fiction novel: a society equipped with minicomputers at our fingertips versus a law enforcement capable of criminal tracking via GPS satellite, each with the ability to instantly access a myriad of important documents through data-relaying clouds. Yet these were the very issues with which the Supreme Court wrestled while deciding Riley v. California, the very first computer-search case in SCOTUS history. While scope of this protection remains somewhat vague, the decision highlights a modernized court, better equipped to take a stance in a new and digitized era.

On Wednesday, the justices voted unanimously to protect the future of privacy in the technological sector, even when criminal procedure may be hindered in the process. The Court’s decision proscribes a unique blend of First and Fourth Amendment protections, and will likely set the tone for individual privacy in the digital age. Riley — while only providing a vague outline of protections — certainly seems to be a step in the right direction. To get a better understanding of the case, I sat down with constitutional law professor Alan Sager, who offered an inside look at the expected ramifications of this landmark decision.

A significant Fourth Amendment victory, the protection of cell phone data acknowledges the inherent difference of the device from, say, simple components of a glove box. “The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also have the ability to be used as a telephone,” says Chief Justice John Roberts, “[They are so pervasive to daily life]… that a proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they are an important feature of human anatomy.” The categorical protection of cell phone data signals a sharp turn from past precedent, which enabled officers to seize and preserve all evidence within reach. Citing precedent from Chimel v. California, U.S. v. Robinson and Arizona v. Gant, the court last week ruled that under the Fourth Amendment “reasonableness” test, immediate access to such a personal and revealing database is ultimately unconstitutional.

And many Americans are inclined to agree. “It comes down to a balance test… privacy for the people versus dangers posed to law enforcement officers,” says Sager, who also served as a former Supreme Court Judicial Fellow (1974-1977). “You need to look at immediate danger of the object — a cell phone, for instance, would be here distinguished from one which could ultimately be used as a weapon — versus potential threat, such as contacting others or sending warnings to friends that may hinder [effectiveness] of the law enforcement.”

Perhaps this modern approach to law enforcement will mitigate abuse of police power, often used to bolster convictions or aid in localizing gang information. Petitioner David Riley was originally stopped for a traffic violation and subsequently arrested on weapons charges. While searching Riley’s car in August 2009, an officer seized his cell phone and began accessing information, eventually linking Riley to a street gang. Coupled with earlier gang-related violence in the area, this information was sufficient to convict Riley of a shooting which had occurred several weeks prior. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that cell phone seizures made without a warrant are illegal and therefore inadmissible evidence in court.

Ultimately, Sager agrees with the court’s unanimous opinion, adding that ruling otherwise likely would yield extreme “slippery-slope” abuses of aforementioned police power. “Where would the line be drawn, otherwise? Could police seize cell phones from pedestrians, walking on sidewalks? There’d simply be no good way to limit it.” As can be expected, opposition on this front has been voiced largely by law enforcement officials, claiming the ruling will make it harder to do their jobs. Officers say the Riley decision is yet another obstacle in a “losing battle,” as law enforcement departments struggle to match both the pace and innovation of technology often utilized in crime.

“It’s a balancing act”, Sager agrees, acknowledging the truths of each party. “It’s big-picture government versus the individual… This is an issue where you simply can’t draw typical ideological lines. It’s not conservative versus liberal; Democrats against the Republicans. It’s bigger, more convoluted than that. And I think that’s why the Court decided to weigh in in the first place.”

But what does this decision say about the future of technology privacy?

“I’d say the Court’s decision to hear the case, as well as the unanimous vote… really shows that they are aware of the amount of government snooping, or at least the potential for it,” speculates Sager. “It’s their way of making a statement: [the Court] recognizes modern evolution of privacy issues, and will continue to air on the right of privacy as best as they can.”

Though largely confined to Fourth Amendment protections and criminal procedure, it seems that Riley’s decision to stand for privacy at the cost of government agencies will be met by Americans with a sense of all-too-welcome relief. “It’s a small step,” Sager concedes, “but certainly one taken in the right direction.”

In an era of constant technological evolution and flux, we must constantly maintain an awareness of boundaries.

And when there is not a clear line to evaluate? Well then, perhaps, it is time we draw one for ourselves.


Deppisch is a government senior.