Cellphone Ruling Preserves Citizens Rights, Privacy and the Fourth Amendment

cover6By: Darwin Campbell, African-American News&Issues

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. - Fourth Amendment, U.S. Constitution

HOUSTON- Preserving what is left of personal privacy in American society was a key point in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling involving cellphones and other digital devices.

In an age of surveillance, wire taps, phone taps and internet snooping, cell phones and other electronic devices, it appears things will be somewhat safer and protected under the Fourth Amendment.

In the Riley v. California Decision, the the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that

the police must obtain warrants before searching the digital contents of cellphones taken from people who are placed under arrest.

While it offers cover for the law abiding citizen and those accused of crimes, it is of no consolation to police officers who may have to rethink the way they do business when it comes to policing in 21st Century age awash in technology.

“The Supreme Court is the law of the land,” said Houston Police Chief Charles A. McClelland, Jr.

 “We here at HPD will be spending the coming days looking at the ruling and determining the best way to implement the changes needed.  This certainly does not change how we will investigate crimes, it will only change the procedures we use to investigate them.”

The Search

During the search in the case of David Leon Riley in California, police located two guns and subsequently arrested Riley for possession of the firearms. Riley had his cell phone in his pocket when he was arrested, so a gang unit detective analyzed videos and photographs of Riley making gang signs and other gang indicia that were stored on the phone to determine whether Riley was gang affiliated. Riley was subsequently tied to the shooting on August 2 via ballistics tests, and separate charges were brought to include shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder, and assault with a semi-automatic firearm. Before trial, Riley moved to suppress the evidence regarding his gang affiliation that had been acquired through his cell phone. His motion was denied. At trial, a gang expert testified to Riley’s membership in the Lincoln Park gang, the rivalry between the gangs involved, and why the shooting could have been gang-related. The jury convicted Riley on all three counts and sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison.

Protecting Privacy Important

In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledges the decision might cause the police’s job to be a little more complex in searching a phone, but they will have to get that warrant first.

We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost. …Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest, Justice Roberts wrote in the decision.

Now, it offers some protection to people arrested every year, many especially for minor crimes.

The ruling may also extend to searches of tablet and laptop computers, and its reasoning may apply to searches of homes and businesses and of information held by third parties like phone companies.

Law Enforcement Contends  Current Search Procedures Respect Laws

“The Dallas Police Department complies with the laws of search and seizure,” said Maj. Max Geron Police Media Relations of the Dallas Police Department. “(We) will continue to do so.”

Some other law enforcement agencies across Texas heard of the ruling, but contend it does not impact the way they do business at all.

“The ruling will have little or no effect on our operations,” Sgt. Javier Salazar, PIO Director for the San Antonio Police Department. “Our officers and detectives have been using that practice for some time now.”

What makes the ruling significant is the fact remains that 90 percent of Americans keep some kind of digital record on their phones. Most data found on cellphones that people may consider to be private information.

In his argument, Roberts was very persuasive about the need to protect privacy and how that privacy is linked directly to the fact that cellphones are become an integral part of the American culture and one of the new ways Americans store and keep personal data.

Protecting Cellphone Privacy Just Makes Good Sense

Justice Roberts wrote giving common sense practical reasons why the Fourth Amendment must apply to the devices.

The storage capacity of cell phones has several interrelated consequences for privacy. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information—an address, a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video— that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier. A person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones; he would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several months, as would routinely be kept on a phone.The storage capacity of cell phones has several interrelated consequences for privacy. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information—an address, a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video— that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier. A person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones; he would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several months, as would routinely be kept on a phone.

Justice Samuel Alito said the time has come for developing a new set of standard that balance law enforcement and privacy interests. He called on federal, state and local governments to take serious look at the issue.

In light of these developments, it would be very unfortunate if privacy protection in the 21st century were left primarily to the federal courts using the blunt instrument of the Fourth Amendment. Legislatures, elected by the people, are in a better position than we are to assess and respond to the changes that have already occurred and those that almost certainly will take place in the future, Alito wrote.

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