SCOTUS Grants Cert in California Cell Phone Search Case

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on January 31, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in a duo of cases regarding the constitutionality of searching cell phones as "search incident to lawful arrest" ("SITA"), and one of those cases has its roots in the California courts.

Supreme Court's Review of Final Judgments

Riley v. California, is an unpublished opinion of the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District of California. And if you just did a double take -- then you're on to something. If Riley didn't reach the highest court of the state, how did the Supreme Court grant cert? Because, the Riley decision was based on controlling precedent from the Supreme Court of California. Since the California Court of Appeal was the highest court available to review the decision, Riley was able to petition the Supreme Court for cert.

People v. Riley -- Underlying Facts

David Riley was convicted of several counts related to a gang-related shooting that occurred on August 2, 2009. He was not arrested until August 22, 2009 when he was lawfully stopped for traffic violations. When the officer realized the Riley's license was suspended, he had to impound the car and conducted a lawful inventory search of the car and found two guns. Deciding to arrest Riley, the officer confiscated his cell phone, and the trial court found it fell under a "bookings search." Detectives later searched Riley's phone and found evidence of gang affiliation, and were able to determine that the phone was near the crime, when the crime took place.

Cell Phone Search Incident to Lawful Arrest

Here, the Court of Appeal determined that since Riley's phone was "immediately associated with his person," Diaz was controlling. In Diaz, the California Supreme Court ruled that post-arrest search of a phone was proper, and categorized as SITA, when the phone was "'immediately associated' with his 'person' when he was stopped ." Thus, the court held the search on Riley's phone was lawful, notwithstanding the absence of exigent circumstances.

The Supreme Court is also considering a similar issue in a First Circuit case that found a similar search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. We're waiting on a decision, but we're hoping that given the amount of information available on one's phone, that the Court will require a warrant in these types of cases.

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