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Riley v. California and its impact on traffic stops

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On August 2, 2009, David Riley was pulled over in San Diego, California, for having expired tags and a suspended driver’s license. As per police policy, the car was impounded and a warrantless search was conducted. Two handguns were found in the car that was connected to a shooting that occurred two weeks prior to the stop. During the arrest, the police confiscated and searched the data on Riley’s smartphone without a warrant. Some of the cell phone data linked Riley to gang activity and the shooting and was therefore entered into evidence at his trial. Riley was convicted on three charges.

Riley appealed his convictions arguing that the warrantless search of his cell phone was an unacceptable intrusion of his personal privacy. The state argued that police officers need to be able to search cell phones without waiting for a warrant in order to avoid the destruction of critical evidence and to prevent imminent danger to themselves and the public. Thus, the appeal sought to find the balance between two often competing interests: the privacy rights protected by the Fourth Amendment and the safety of the police and the public.

In a historic ruling handed down on June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States held that police need a warrant to search cell phones unless exigent circumstances exist (such as destruction of the phone or imminent danger to the police or the public). The Supreme Court based its ruling on the fact that a cell phone today is like a mini-computer, and contains so much information about a person that a search of it would be as or more intrusive than searching a person’s home, which requires a warrant. Technology had succeeded in blurring the line between the tangible property (a house) and intangible property (information on a cell phone) and which a search is considered to be more invasive.

The reason your Denver personal injury attorney is highlighting this landmark case is that it will have huge implications for traffic stops and searches or searches incident to traffic arrests. Under Riley, in states that ban cell phone content use –texting, emailing, Internet, instant messaging–while driving, police officers will not be allowed to conduct warrantless searches of the cell phone of the driver they have pulled over to determine if they were, in fact, using it in a prohibited way. For example, Colorado bans drivers under 18 from using a cell phone at all, and all drivers are banned from texting while driving. The offenses are both ones of primary enforcement, meaning that drivers can be pulled over for committing those offenses alone, and do not need to have engaged in any other criminal behavior to be stopped by the police.

But these offenses can no longer be proven by seizing and searching a driver’s cell phone incident to a stop or arrest. Your Denver personal injury attorney emphasizes that a warrant must be obtained before going through a driver’s cell phone to determine if any texting, emailing, messaging or Internet use took place during driving, and a warrant can only be issued if there is probable cause to believe that such use took place at such time. The question post-Riley is what evidence will constitute probable cause for a warrant: an officer seeing what looks like someone texting? 

If you would like more information regarding cell phone searches, or if you have recently been pulled over for texting while driving and your cell phone has been searched, contact your Denver personal injury attorney at Levine Law to discuss your legal rights and options.