The United States Supreme Court recently decided Riley v. California. Two separate Amici Curiae briefs petitioning for Writ of Certiorari  (available here and herecited a note published by the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology, continuing the journal’s impressive rise to the forefront of technology law. Congratulations to the author, Samuel J. H. Beutler, on an excellent contribution to this area of the law!

“The decision brings the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century.”

This statement, made by lawyer Jeffrey L. Fisher after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in his client’s favor, illustrates the magnitude of the Court’s decision in Riley v. California. In holding that police officers cannot perform warrantless searches of cellphones, the Court acknowledged the prevalence of technology in Americans’ everyday lives, and demonstrated that the Fourth Amendment remains as important today as it did when the Constitution was first ratified. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts illustrated the importance of cellphones, stating that they are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”  The Chief Justice supported this assertion, by noting that more than 90 percent of Americans own cellphones. Roberts also discussed the frequency of cellphone use, stating “according to one poll, nearly three-quarters of smartphone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12 percent admitting that they even use their phones in the shower.”

The opinion also demonstrates the uniqueness of cellphones.  In trying to justify the warrantless search of cellphones, the government argued that they are no different from other items found in a suspect’s pockets, such as their wallets or keys. The Chief Justice soundly rejected this argument, memorably writing “that is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.” The Chief Justice appeared to be keenly aware of just how much information about a person can be gathered by searching for their cellphone, stating that “the average smartphone user has installed 33 apps, which together can form a revealing montage of the user’s life.” Roberts also acknowledged that smartphones are used for much more than just making phone calls and that “they could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers.”

While the opinion may be heralded as bringing the Court into the digital age, it is based on traditional Fourth Amendment principles. The Chief Justice compared the warrantless search of a cellphone to a general warrant, a tool which “allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity” prior to the American revolution. The Chief Justice explicitly stated that new technology should not in any way diminish the privacy protection guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, writing “the fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought.” The Court made no effort to hide the significance of its ruling in Riley. The Chief Justice readily acknowledged that “cellphones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals.”However, all nine Justices determined that the protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment outweighed the challenge the opinion created for law enforcement officials. This choice was explained by the Chief Justice, who stated simply “privacy comes at a cost.”

Many questions remain to be answered after Riley. It is unclear whether the ruling will have an effect on NSA surveillance programs. Additional cases will be needed to determine the scope of the ruling, which legal analysts assume will cover tablets and laptops as well as smartphones. However, regardless of what comes next, the Supreme Court has already taken a huge step towards protecting privacy rights in the digital age. The Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology will continue to be at the forefront of the

Daniel Rheiner

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