Will Supreme Court Cell Phone Search Ruling Apply Retroactively? [FEATURE]

special to the Chronicle by investigative reporter Clarence Walker, [email protected]

On June 25, the US Supreme Court handed down a resounding landmark ruling in two separate high profile criminal cases, requiring police to first get a warrant to search a person's cell phone. The ruling is a major victory for the privacy rights of millions of cell phone users, with the Supreme Court working to update Fourth Amendment search and seizure law to keep pace with technological advances.

According to a January Pew survey, 90% of American adults have cell phones and 58% have smart phones.

Cell phones are "such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion. "Cell phones and smart phones with extensive memory can store millions of pages of personal texts, hundreds of photos and videos, which can form a revealing biography of a person's life, and that the Fourth Amendment must protect personal, private possessions. A cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the exhaustive search of a house."

In its unanimous decision, the court rejected the Obama administration's argument that "cell phones are no different from anything else a person may be carrying when arrested, and that cell phones are now critical to tools in the commission of a crime."

The decision came in two separate cases, US v. David Riley, a California man serving 15 years on charges of attempted murder and a gun charge, and US v. Brima Wurie, a Boston area man sentenced to federal pen for 22 1/2 years on drug related charges. The court consolidated the two cases in reaching its opinion.

The question now becomes whether the decision will be applied retroactively to thousands of similar prosecutions where defendants were convicted as result of warrantless evidence used against them that were taken from their cell phones or mobile devices. If retroactivity is granted, thousands of inmates could either go free, be granted a new trial, or face resentencing.

Attorney Orrin Kerr (gwu.edu)
Writing a commentary in the Washington Post, lawyer Orin Kerr, who serves as a professor at George Washington Law School, explained why the decision in the Wurie and Riley cases may not be made retroactive.

"The culprit is the continued expansion of the good faith exception in Davis v. US, where the Supreme Court ruled that the exclusionary rule is not available if a search was authorized by binding appellant precedent at the time the search occurred," he argued. "Lower courts have interpreted Davis to apply broadly even when no binding appellate precedent authorized the search. Therefore, under these cases, relatively few defendants will get the benefits of the Riley-Wurie rule."

In an interview with the Chronicle, San Diego appellate attorney Charles Sevilla largely agreed.

"The court seldom states whether its rulings are retroactive," he told the Chronicle. "And even if the reversals in Wurie's and Riley's cell phone convictions were applied retroactively to cases not yet final on appeal, the defendants must face a 'good faith' argument to request a new trial. A 'good faith' argument can be made, for example, when a police officer, relying on a warrant, finds incriminating evidence during a search, but the search warrant is later found to be invalid. The 'good faith' doctrine allows the use of that evidence if it were unlawfully obtained because the officer was acting in 'good faith,'" he explained.

"Evidence should be suppressed only if it can be said that the law enforcement officer had knowledge a search was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment," Sevilla added, citing Herring v. US. "If the police, during prior cell phone searches, acted on case law allowing warrantless searches, then an officer's 'good faith' conduct will doom a suppression motion," Seville argued.

Of course, police usually deny knowingly conducting unlawful searches.

Sevilla also cited Davis v. US as another obstacle to retroactivity in cell phone search cases. In that case, Illinois police arrested Willie Gene Davis for providing a false name, then searched his car and found an illegal weapon. An appeals court refused to throw out the warrantless search of Davis's car because the police only searched the immediate area.

Meanwhile Brima Wurie is scheduled to be resentenced on the drug charge that took his case to the Supreme Court. Because of the court's ruling in his case, the drugs and weapon found in his home after police searched Wurie's cell phone will not be considered, but he's still facing serious time.

"As a repeat offender, Mr. Wurie will still face 20 years from the feds on the original drug case," Wurie's appellate public defender, Ian Gold, told the Chronicle. "So the reversal of Wurie's conviction is largely symbolic without much benefit."

The Supreme Court minced no words in separating such devices from other property a person might have on them when detained by police.

"Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. "The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure."

The ruling will certainly apply to searches of tablets, laptop computers, and may even apply to digital information held by third parties like phone companies.

"The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hands does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought," Roberts wrote. "Our answers to the question of what police must do before searching a (cell phone seized incident to an arrest) is accordingly simple -- get a warrant."

"I believe the court got it right," said Lewis Rice, a retired DEA Special Agent in Charge of the agency's New York Office. "The court must balance our right of privacy against law enforcement's ability to aggressively investigate criminal organizations."

Attorney Charles Sevilla (charlessevilla.com)
Rice points out the vital fact that although law enforcement generally needs a warrant, the Supreme Court ruling does allow a warrantless search of a mobile device depending on the immediate situation.

"The court left open the option for law enforcement, under exigent circumstances, to search a cell phone without a warrant," he told the Chronicle.

Still, the decision in Wurie and Riley is already having an impact.

In Michigan, Kent County Circuit Court Judge Mark Trusock tossed felony drug charges against 29-year-old Matthew Macnaughton on July 16 after Macnaughton's attorney successfully brought up the Wurie and Riley decision.

Grand Rapids police had stopped Macnaughton for running a red light, and the officer decided to arrest him for driving without a license. While Macnaughton sat in the rear seat of the patrol car, the officer examined Macnaughton's smart phone just when a text message from a person came across the screen asking to buy drugs.

"What kind of phone is this?" the cop asked. "You must be a drug dealer."

Macnaughton's attorney, Chris Wirth, argued that per the Supreme Court decision, digital contents of a cell phone cannot be searched in the course of a routine arrest, and that there were no circumstances requiring immediate action. Prosecutor argued that Macnaughton's case didn't apply to the Wurie-Riley decision because Macnaughton's arrest ocurred in February -- prior to the high court handing down the cell phone decision -- but that didn't stop Judge Trusock from tossing the case.

Still, while Macnaughton may have beaten the drug rap, the state still got its pound of flesh. The prosecutor's office seized his 2005 Lincoln Aviator and over $3,000 dollars the police took off him during the arrest.

The DEA appears resigned to live with the Supreme Court ruling, a Justice Department spokeswoman's remarks seem to indicate.

"The Department will work with its law enforcement agencies to ensure full compliance with this Supreme Court decision," spokeswoman Ellen Canales told the Chronicle. "We will make use of whatever technology is available to preserve evidence on cell phones while seeking a warrant, and we will assist our agents in determining when exigent circumstances or another applicable exception to the warrant requirement will permit them to search the phone immediately without a warrant."

But while the DEA is looking forward, defendants and defense attorneys are looking back -- and wondering whether they decision won't bring some relief.

Chief Justice John Roberts (supremecourt.gov)
State and federal courts expect to review tons of motions for new trials from numerous lawyers representing defendants already convicted on crimes related to warrantless cell phone evidence, now that the Supreme Court has ruled the practice violates search and seizure law.

"There probably will be a good deal of litigation over whether this decision can be applied retroactively," San Francisco attorney Dennis Riordan told the Los Angeles Times.

Privacy advocates and civil libertarians are also hoping the Supreme Court ruling in Wurie and Riley will have a role in deciding controversial cases making their way through the lower courts, whether it's cell phone location data tracking or the Obama administration's NSA spy surveillance program.

"When it comes to the Fourth Amendment, we want courts to ensure this important legal protection survives the rapid technological changes of the 21st Century," Hanni Fakoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Chronicle.

The cell phone rulings in the Wurie and Riley cases are only the latest landmark decisions to strike a balance between privacy protections and the evolving role. In Kyllo v. US, the high court ruled that police must obtain a warrant before using thermal imaging devices on homes, while in US v. Jones, the high court overturned the life-without-parole drug conspiracy conviction against Antoine Jones, in which FBI agents and Maryland narcotics officers placed a GPS tracking device on his vehicle for nearly a month without obtaining a search warrant.

Still, while Jones won the case, he didn't win his freedom. After three federal prosecution, including two hung juries and one with the conviction overturned, Jones chose to agree to a plea deal with federal prosecutors rather than face another chance at life in prison with yet another trial.

In a letter from prison, where he is working on a book about his experiences, Jones had something to say about the cell phone decisions.

"The courts are constantly sending a message to police that they're not willing to give them that much power and control. This is a good thing because the police need to be governed by the courts, and the courts should maintain the power to determine when a search warrant is necessary," he wrote. "The police are being either lazy, or they try to circumvent the law when courts rules in favor of protecting constitutional rights."

It is ironic indeed that, as the US government grapples with the NSA and Edward Snowden spying scandals, it took the case of two convicted felons to get the Supreme Court to protect the privacy of millions of Americans who use cell phones containing reams of data about their private lives. The irony is only deepened when we consider that Brima Wurie and David Riley won't benefit much from this historic ruling.

Washington, DC
United States
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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What if the person accepted a plea bargain

I suppose if the person was convicted only on cell phone evidence, but accepted a plea bargain, they would have no right to an appeal?

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