Riley v. California

Decision Date25 June 2014
Docket NumberNos. 13–132,13–212.,s. 13–132
Citation134 S.Ct. 2473,189 L.Ed.2d 430,573 U.S. 373
Parties David Leon RILEY, Petitioner v. CALIFORNIA. United States, Petitioner v. Brima Wurie.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Jeffrey L. Fisher, Stanford, CA, for Petitioner Riley.

Edward C. Dumont, San Diego, CA, for Respondent California.

Michael R. Dreeben, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the Respondent.

Patrick Morgan Ford, Law Office of Patrick Morgan Ford, San Diego, CA, Donald B. Ayer, Jones Day, Washington, DC, Jeffrey L. Fisher, Counsel of Record, Stanford Law School, Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, Stanford, CA, for Petitioner Riley.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General of California, Edward C. Dumont, Solicitor General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Julie L. Garland, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Steven T. Oetting, Craig J. Konnoth, Deputy Solicitors General, Christine M. Levingston Bergman, Counsel of Record, Deputy Attorney General, State of California Department of Justice, San Diego, CA, for Respondent California.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for the United States.

Judith H. Mizner, Counsel of Record, Federal Defender Office, for Respondent Wurie.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Mythili Raman, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, John F. Bash, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Robert A. Parker, Michael A. Rotker, Attorneys, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for the United States.

Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

These two cases raise a common question: whether the police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.


In the first case, petitioner David Riley was stopped by a police officer for driving with expired registration tags. In the course of the stop, the officer also learned that Riley's license had been suspended. The officer impounded Riley's car, pursuant to department policy, and another officer conducted an inventory search of the car. Riley was arrested for possession of concealed and loaded firearms when that search turned up two handguns under the car's hood. See Cal.Penal Code Ann. §§ 12025(a)(1), 12031(a)(1) (West 2009).

An officer searched Riley incident to the arrest and found items associated with the "Bloods" street gang. He also seized a cell phone from Riley's pants pocket. According to Riley's uncontradicted assertion, the phone was a "smart phone," a cell phone with a broad range of other functions based on advanced computing capability, large storage capacity, and Internet connectivity. The officer accessed information on the phone and noticed that some words (presumably in text messages or a contacts list) were preceded by the letters "CK"—a label that, he believed, stood for "Crip Killers," a slang term for members of the Bloods gang.

At the police station about two hours after the arrest, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the contents of the phone. The detective testified that he "went through" Riley's phone "looking for evidence, because ... gang members will often video themselves with guns or take pictures of themselves with the guns." App. in No. 13–132, p. 20. Although there was "a lot of stuff" on the phone, particular files that "caught [the detective's] eye" included videos of young men sparring while someone yelled encouragement using the moniker "Blood." Id., at 11–13. The police also found photographs of Riley standing in front of a car they suspected had been involved in a shooting a few weeks earlier.

Riley was ultimately charged, in connection with that earlier shooting, with firing at an occupied vehicle, assault with a semiautomatic firearm, and attempted murder. The State alleged that Riley had committed those crimes for the benefit of a criminal street gang, an aggravating factor that carries an enhanced sentence. Compare Cal.Penal Code Ann. § 246 (2008) with § 186.22(b)(4)(B) (2014). Prior to trial, Riley moved to suppress all evidence that the police had obtained from his cell phone. He contended that the searches of his phone violated the Fourth Amendment, because they had been performed without a warrant and were not otherwise justified by exigent circumstances. The trial court rejected that argument. App. in No. 13–132, at 24, 26. At Riley's trial, police officers testified about the photographs and videos found on the phone, and some of the photographs were admitted into evidence. Riley was convicted on all three counts and received an enhanced sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed. No. D059840 (Cal. App., Feb. 8, 2013), App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 13–132, pp. 1a–23a. The court relied on the California Supreme Court's decision in People v. Diaz, 51 Cal.4th 84, 119 Cal.Rptr.3d 105, 244 P.3d 501 (2011), which held that the Fourth Amendment permits a warrantless search of cell phone data incident to an arrest, so long as the cell phone was immediately associated with the arrestee's person. See id., at 93, 119 Cal.Rptr.3d 105, 244 P.3d, at 505–506.

The California Supreme Court denied Riley's petition for review, App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 13–132, at 24a, and we granted certiorari, 571 U.S. ––––, 132 S.Ct. 94, 181 L.Ed.2d 23 (2014).


In the second case, a police officer performing routine surveillance observed respondent Brima Wurie make an apparent drug sale from a car. Officers subsequently arrested Wurie and took him to the police station. At the station, the officers seized two cell phones from Wurie's person. The one at issue here was a "flip phone," a kind of phone that is flipped open for use and that generally has a smaller range of features than a smart phone. Five to ten minutes after arriving at the station, the officers noticed that the phone was repeatedly receiving calls from a source identified as "my house" on the phone's external screen. A few minutes later, they opened the phone and saw a photograph of a woman and a baby set as the phone's wallpaper. They pressed one button on the phone to access its call log, then another button to determine the phone number associated with the "my house" label. They next used an online phone directory to trace that phone number to an apartment building.

When the officers went to the building, they saw Wurie's name on a mailbox and observed through a window a woman who resembled the woman in the photograph on Wurie's phone. They secured the apartment while obtaining a search warrant and, upon later executing the warrant, found and seized 215 grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a firearm and ammunition, and cash.

Wurie was charged with distributing crack cocaine, possessing crack cocaine with intent to distribute, and being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) ; 21 U.S.C. § 841(a). He moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of the apartment, arguing that it was the fruit of an unconstitutional search of his cell phone. The District Court denied the motion. 612 F.Supp.2d 104 (Mass.2009). Wurie was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to 262 months in prison.

A divided panel of the First Circuit reversed the denial of Wurie's motion to suppress and vacated Wurie's convictions for possession with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm as a felon. 728 F.3d 1 (2013). The court held that cell phones are distinct from other physical possessions that may be searched incident to arrest without a warrant, because of the amount of personal data cell phones contain and the negligible threat they pose to law enforcement interests. See id., at 8–11.

We granted certiorari. 571 U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 999, 187 L.Ed.2d 848 (2014).


The Fourth Amendment provides:

"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."

As the text makes clear, "the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’ " Brigham City v. Stuart,

547 U.S. 398, 403, 126 S.Ct. 1943, 164 L.Ed.2d 650 (2006). Our cases have determined that "[w]here a search is undertaken by law enforcement officials to discover evidence of criminal wrongdoing, ... reasonableness generally requires the obtaining of a judicial warrant." Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 653, 115 S.Ct. 2386, 132 L.Ed.2d 564 (1995). Such a warrant ensures that the inferences to support a search are "drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime." Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 14, 68 S.Ct. 367, 92 L.Ed. 436 (1948). In the absence of a warrant, a search is reasonable only if it falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement. See Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. ––––, ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1849, 1856–1857, 179 L.Ed.2d 865 (2011).

The two cases before us concern the reasonableness of a warrantless search incident to a lawful arrest. In 1914, this Court first acknowledged in dictum "the right on the part of the Government, always recognized under English and American law, to search the person of the accused when legally arrested to discover and seize the fruits or evidences of crime." Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 392, 34 S.Ct. 341, 58 L.Ed. 652. Since that time, it has been well accepted that such a search constitutes an exception to the warrant requirement. Indeed, the label "exception" is something of a misnomer in this context, as warrantless searches incident to arrest occur with far greater frequency than...

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