Can Police Search Your Cell Phone?

In the current case of DAVID LEON RILEY, Petitioner v. STATE OF CALIFORNIA Respondent (13-132), the U.S. Supreme Court on a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari will review the unpublished Decision of the Fourth District California Court of Appeal and, hopefully, clarify whether the police may seize a cell phone from a person under arrest and search its contents.


In the underlying case, Riley was stopped by the police on August 22, 2009 for an expired vehicle registration tag. Soon thereafter, the officer determined Riley was driving on a suspended license (DSL) and impounded the vehicle. While documenting the contents of the vehicle, the officers discovered under the hood of the car two concealed and loaded weapons. Then, Riley was placed under arrest and the officers seized his “smart phone.” At this point, the officer searched the contents and discovered numerous contacts preceded by the initials “CK” (members of a criminal gang commonly known as “Bloods” or “Crip Killers).”  Another officer viewed the photos on the cell phone at the police station and noticed one in which Riley was standing next to a vehicle that he believed was involved in a prior gang related shooting.


Riley was accused of attempted murder among other charges, and under California law the DA also included a gang enhancement that increased the length of his sentence.

His lawyer sought to exclude the evidence on the basis of a warrantless search without exigent circumstances (that otherwise could justify the search) and, therefore, violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Riley was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life whereas it would have been a maximum of 7 years without the gang enhancement.


The Supreme Court is likely to decide whether cell phones should receive special treatment as Courts have been divided and have reached inconsistent results, and because they store “virtually limitless” personal and private information, including access to the internet and even digital copies of private medical records. In the event it rules in favor of Riley, he could be retried with the evidence and contents of the cellphone being excluded.