San Diego smartphone search case to be heard by Supreme Court

SAN DIEGO - Should police be able to search the smartphone of anyone they arrest without a warrant?

That's the central question of Riley v. California, a local case set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court later this month.

In 2009, a San Diego traffic stop for expired tags led to the discovery of two loaded guns. The driver, David Riley, was placed under arrest and his cellphone searched, turning up photos and videos.  Several photos linked him to a gang member involved in a shooting.  Riley was later convicted in connection to the shooting and sentenced to 15 years to life.

Riley's appellate attorney, Pat Ford, said the cellphone search led to the conviction and gang enhancer, despite no direct evidence linking him to the shooting. Ford's team will argue before the Supreme Court that that search was unconstitutional.

“There's a rule that says if police arrest you, they can search your pockets and everything you’ve got on you,” Alex Kreit, an associate professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, told 10News Friday. “That rule was established before the rise of cellphones.”
Riley's camp contends searching data-rich smartphones with no warrant is a violation of privacy and the 4th Amendment.

“One particular distinction is the capacity for storage,” Ford said. “It contains all our communications, all of our photos, videos, personal records, medical records and business records.”

The state Supreme Court has ruled in favor of warrantless cellphone searches, but high courts in other states have ruled the opposite. The issue has also divided federal courts.

“This case presents a great opportunity to examine privacy rights in the modern age,” Ford said.

The case will be heard before the Supreme Court on April 29.     

“I’m feeling very hopeful,” said Brigitte Murphy, Riley’s mother. “I’m very anxious that it’s heard and the right decision is made.”
Currently, law enforcement can search for items that could pose a physical threat. Ford says that exception to the 4th Amendment does not apply to cellphones.

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