Will Supreme Court Cell Phone Search Ruling Apply Retroactively?
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 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. InKyllo v. US, the high court ruled that police must obtain a warrant before using thermal imaging devices on homes.
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 took “a plea deal” rather than face another chance at life in prison in another trial.
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 retroactively is granted, thousands of inmates could either go free, be granted a new trial, or face re-sentencing. But the prospects of that happening is slim.
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 authorized 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.
We can only hope that the lower courts find a way to work justice and not continue the imprisonment of our citizens when the foundation of the case against that citizen is governmental conduct of this sort.
Simply put: Two Wrongs don’t make a right!