SCOTUS in Review: Riley v. California & United States v. Wurie


While the media is embroiled in the controversy surrounding the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court also made a significant Fourth Amendment ruling in People v. Riley, 2014 U.S. LEXIS 44997 (2014). The case creates a bright line rule against warrantless searches of cell phones under the search incident to arrest doctrine (SITA). It is the first SCOTUS decision to bring modern context to antiquated Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. This decision is consistent with the recent trend of SCOTUS decisions affording more protection to the privacy of individuals. See, e.g., McNeely.


The decision consolidates two companion cases, People v. Riley and United States v. Wurie. In Riley, a traffic violation escalated into a full stop for a weapons charge. Later, detectives combed through the defendant’s cell phone post-arrest and later charged him with attempted murder. Id at 11.  Riley moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the search was not reasonable and impermissibly intruded upon the defendant’s right to privacy.

In Wurie, police searched Wurie’s flip phone post-arrest and accessed the call log to trace calls. The police used this information to locate Wurie’s residence, wherein they discovered drugs, guns, and money. Id at 13.  (It’s worth noting that the decision pokes fun at Wurie’s “less sophisticated” cell phone.)


The unanimous decision really centered its reasoning on four basic arguments: 1) reasonableness, 2) safety of law enforcement, 3) destruction of evidence, and 4) privacy rights of the individual. Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295, 300 (1999) (“[the government must assess] the degree to which it intrudes upon the individual’s privacy and… the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.”). Prior to the Riley decision, courts applied the tangled Fourth Amendment analysis promulgated under the Chimel, Robinson, and Gant decisions. In Chimel, the Court held the risk to officer safety and destruction of evidence could justify a warrantless search.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, concluded that a search of one’s cell phone was no longer reasonable because they have become “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life.” He noted that “from the mundane to the intimate,” we keep our entire lives on our phones. Id at 37. The Court also rejected arguments that a search was necessary for either Chimel factor.  Government attorneys argued that cell phones were susceptible to remote wiping of data and encryption. SCOTUS dismissed these concerns and argued law enforcement could use a “Faraday bag” to prevent evidence tampering or destruction.

Tips for Washington Attorneys 

When citing to People v. Riley, also cite to State v. Hinton (Wash. 2014). In it, the Washington Supreme Court noted that “Article I, section 7 protects Washington citizens from governmental intrusion into affairs that they should be entitled to hold safe from governmental trespass, regardless of technological advancements.”

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