In a major (and increasingly rare) victory for privacy, the Supreme Court voted unanimously to require a warrant for police to search cellphones of arrested individuals. Chief Justice Roberts issued a consolidated opinion in two cases: Riley v. California, No. 13-132, and United States v. Wurie, No. 13-212. The second case is another loss for the Obama Administration which fought to strip citizens of privacy over their cellphone records — a consistent attack on privacy by this Administration. The Supreme Court also issued a major ruling in favor of cable companies in American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc., a decision that may not sit well with the many citizens who despise these companies. I will be discussing these decision on CNN with Wolf Blitzer today.
The Riley case involved David L. Riley, who was pulled over in San Diego in 2009 for having an expired auto registration. A search of the car found guns and police searched his cellphone and found what they alleged were street gang contacts and was used to connect him to a shooting. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison despite the absence of a warrant on the cellphone. The police found loaded guns in his car and, on inspecting Mr. Riley’s smartphone, entries they associated with a street gang.
The second case involved Brima Wurie, who was arrested in 2007 in Boston and charged with gun and drug crimes. His phone was also searched without his permission or a warrant. Unlike the California state courts that upheld the Riley searches, the First Circuit correctly threw out the evidence found on Mr. Wurie’s phone.
The Administration pushed to strip privacy protections from citizens, which would have opened up the most commonly held electronic records for all citizens and blow a hole through American privacy law. However, the Administration succeeded in united a normally divided court with this extreme argument.
Chief Justice Roberts noted the new reliance on cell phones for data storage:
Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person. The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras,video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers. One of the most notable distinguishing features of modern cell phones is their immense storage capacity.
It is important to recognize however that this only requires a warrant which is uniformly granted. However, it requires at least an independent judgment on the probable cause for the search. Roberts noted:
We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost. Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.
Here is the decision: Riley Opinion
In Aereo, the Supreme Court dealt a deadly blow to Internet services that allow customers to watch broadcast TV programs on mobile devices. Aereo was launched a year ago and gave customers the ability to watch over-the-air TV programs on a smartphone, tablet, or computers for as little as $8 a month. The cable companies balked at the loss of control and revenue. The Court ruled that Aereo was violating federal copyright law by retransmitting copyrighted programs without paying a copyright fee.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, has become the Court’s guru on all things copyrights or trademarks in recent years. He is generally unpopular for past rulings by the IP community but this one went in favor of the copyright claims. While Breyer stressed that this was a limited decision that will not “discourage the emergence or use of different kinds of technologies,” the remand left little room for Aereo or other companies that might follow it. The case reinforces copyright claims over the public performance of copyrighted works.
Here is that opinion: the Aearo Opinion