Newark, NJ- With technology becoming an omnipresent force in modern life, the line between privacy– especially in the digital realm– and our constitutional rights can be somewhat murky. So, the Supreme Court is often called on to clarify our rights to privacy in the context of the constitution. The court’s decision Wednesday, June 25th, was a victory for each individual’s right to privacy in the face of an increasingly technological world, while also reaffirming the constitutional rights of criminal suspects.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is one of the main pillars of the criminal justice system and protects all citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. Its an important check on law enforcement, and is intended to keep people from being search or arrested for a crime without probable cause and a warrant to search their personal effects, car or home. Our Fourth Amendment rights are very important right and often figure prominently in a New Jersey criminal attorney’s defense strategy when a person is facing criminal charges.
Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision pertained to two separate cases involving men who were convicted of crimes and sentenced to long prison terms based on information police obtained from their cellphones. In a unanimous decision, Supreme Court justices ruled that law enforcement officers are not allowed to search the contents of cellphones belonging to individuals they arrest without first obtaining a warrant.
In Riley v. California, (13-132), a man was arrested and charged with weapons violations in 2006 after a routine traffic stop. During their investigation, police searched his cellphone and found evidence including photos and text messages authorities said was suggestive of gang activity and led to enhanced charges and penalties for the defendant. He appealed his conviction and tried to have much of the evidence suppressed, but a state court allowed the cellphone evidence in the case.
In the other case, United States v. Wurie, a Boston man was arrested and charged with drug offenses in 2007 after police were granted a premises warrant for his apartment based on information they found on the man’s cellphone. Because police didn’t get a warrant for the cellphone, the defendant in this case appealed his conviction in federal court, which determined the evidence was inadmissible and threw out the man’s conviction. With their decision, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the federal court barring the cellphone evidence obtained without a warrant from being used to prosecute the defendant.
Both the federal government and state of California asserted they didn’t need a warrant to search a suspect’s cellphone based on a prior Supreme Court decision. In Chimel v. California, (1969), justices said police have the right to conduct a thorough search of an arrestee’s person without a warrant and can use information from that search to charge and prosecute them. This warrantless search can include pockets, shoes, etc. and can cover items such as wallet or a pack of cigarettes (Chimel v. California centered on a warrantless search of a man’s pack of cigarettes). For Chimel v. California, justices reasoned that allowing this type of search assured police were safe from harm, the arrestee had no weapons or objects they could use to escape, and evidence would be preserved.
In Riley and Wurie, prosecutors argued argued a cellphone was akin to pack of cigarettes and law enforcement did not need a warrant to look at its contents. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and distinguished cellphones from the more “mundane” objects an arrestee may have on his/her person.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion, cellphones were essentially “minicomputers,” and based on the scope of the information they can contain, they “are not just another technological convenience.” Instead, Justice Roberts wrote cellphones are “a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives” and could not be treated in the same way as wallet or a pack of cigarettes. Law enforcement must first obtain a warrant to look at an arrestee’s cellphone unless an in an emergency situation in which lives are in imminent danger.
This decision strengthened each American’s rights to privacy and also reinforced a criminal suspect’s protection from unreasonable search and seizure. As a New Jersey criminal defense attorney, I feel as though this decision was important for all Americans. It also shows how important it is for any person to have a criminal defense attorney on their side protecting their rights and ensuring illegally obtained information can’t be used to prosecute them.
If you are facing criminal charges in New Jersey, you can contact my Newark office to talk about your charges and discuss the possible defense strategies we can employ to give you the opportunity to avoid conviction.