Facts about the case
The case is about an individual Riley and Wurie who were arrested by the police. Riley apparently had violated a traffic rule and was subsequently noticed by the police who arrested him and impounded the vehicle. Upon scrutiny of the relevant documents that an individual should possess while driving, it was discovered that his license was not valid and that it had already been suspended. During this process the police took away a phone belonging to Riley from his pocket that revealed that him (Riley) was connected to a street criminal gang and that he was involved in a recent shooting. What followed was prosecution of Riley on grounds of attempted murder. Riley made an effort to overturn the evidence derived from his phone but he was unsuccessful at first attempt.
Wurie; found selling drugs from a car. Upon arrest and confiscation of the phone which revealed a party to the crime. When a search was conducted in the house location retrieved from the phone; drugs, weapons and ammunitions were found by the police. Wurie was charged for these offences. Just like Riley, Wurie also moved to overturn the decision of using evidence from the phone and again this was unsuccessful.
History of the case
The original idea of police searching a suspected and the surrounding area was coined in 1969 when the court ruled that it was a duty of the police to search a suspect to avoid confiscation of evidence that would otherwise be used in a court and also to prevent harm to the police as the suspect may use weapons at his/her disposal.
The other appellate courts argued that there was dispute as they pointed out that before doing such a search to a search warrant must be obtained. It was also complex on how to handle the two different scenarios of handling the two generations of phones. The Appellate courts initially ruled that cell phones just like other physical possessions should be searched without a search warrant since their contents in form of data could be used as evidence in the court. They went on to say that there was a negligible amount of privacy compared to the large magnitude of evidence they were holding. The initial attempts by the suspects to overthrow the use of digital content in a phone was unsuccessful, the initial argument was later reversed by the court of appeal.
Issues and Decisions on the case
There were several issues that were raised in the case. The questions that were raised included whether searching a suspect could prevent harm to the officers and destroy evidence, whether a third party could wipe out data from the cell phone to destroy evidence. The argument here was that a search had to be conducted to a suspect as this would help to disarm a suspect not to endanger the life of a police and also to prevent a suspect from destroying valuable evidence. But if in some cases the suspect had not showed an attempt to threaten and endanger the life of a police then such kind of search was inappropriate. There was also a matter of justification for the police to conduct a search when he/she was suspecting that the suspect might destroy or harm an officer. The third issue was the limitation of the search area as there are instance that makes it difficult for officers to search other areas that are not legitimately concerning the suspect (third party). This posed a question as to how a search could be conducted to other areas. This was discussed and argued that a search was only relevant to those specific areas that were genuinely accessible to the suspect.
Reasons for the decisions
Considering specifically to the case, the Judges decided that data contained in a cell phone did not comprise a search incident and that in such a case a search warrant should be obtained. Based on their argument the decision established that the search of digital data in a cellphone is not valid to meet the interest of the government as a way of protecting the life of a police officer and preservation of evidence to be used in the court. The court argued and established that searching a suspect’s phone was a gross violation of individual privacy.
The court decided on the issue as follows; as to whether a suspect could harm the officers, the court decided that in such a position of arrest the suspect could not harm the lives of the officers as the cell phones had and other weapons had already been seized. This to them could not lead to a suspect destroying evidence present in the phone. As to whether third parties could remotely wipe out data from cell phones, the court decided that third parties were not a part of the search and that authorities should come up with ways of protecting digital data in their custody. The court also observed that the degree of privacy violation of the suspect was big through exposure of private data and could not be compared to the simple pocket search.
This was nearly-unanimous concurring decision; a warrant was required to search a cell phone. The court recognized threats that could be posed when an individual privacy is invaded through digital data search. This was explained that when an individual’s digital data is accessed it exposes even an individual’s private life and it is more invasive than searching a pocket or a residence. Their opinion of Justice John Roberts was that data wiping from a third party could make no difference either for a warrantless search. He went on to add that cell phones were quite complex both in the quantitative and qualitative data that they could hold. The other judge also concurred with the decision by observing that the current cell phones had the capability of storing and holding data that was more than that present in the hard copy and that new laws needed to be formulate to distinct on issues of using digital data in court.