By Michael Arnheim

This case is remarkable for several reasons, not least because the U.S. Supreme Court decision was unanimous, ruling that trawling through the digital contents of a cellphone without a warrant is unconstitutional as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The case arose out of an incident in 2009 in which David Leon Riley was pulled over in his Lexus by a San Diego police officer for expired registration tags. During the stop the officer also found that Riley had a suspended driver’s license. Two loaded handguns were subsequently discovered hidden in the car that matched the firearms used in a recent gangland murder of which Riley had been a suspect.

On the basis of all this information, Riley was placed under arrest, and a search of his cellphone without a warrant yielded evidence of Riley’s membership of the “Bloods” gang, contacts, text messages, and photographs, including one of a red Oldsmobile (his gang’s color) also owned by Riley, which was the vehicle involved in the gangland shooting. Riley was then charged in connection with the gang shooting. Riley’s application to exclude the cellphone evidence from his trial was denied, and he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. The California Court of Appeal upheld his conviction and sentence, and the California Supreme Court found the seizure of Riley’s cellphone kosher because it occurred during a “search incident to arrest.”

A unanimous Supreme Court — a rare phenomenon indeed — disagreed. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the Court, waxed lyrical in defense of individual liberty in the digital age: “Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.”

Justice Alito, while concurring in the holding of the Court, raised some commonsense concerns about possible anomalies: “It would be very unfortunate if privacy protection in the 21st century were left primarily to the federal courts using the blunt instrument of the Fourth Amendment. Legislatures, elected by the people, are in a better position than we are to assess and respond to the changes that have already occurred and those that almost certainly will take place in the future.”

“Won battle, lost war” is how the San Diego Union-Tribune put it, because, despite his victory in the Supreme Court, David Riley was ordered to stay in jail to serve out the rest of his sentence of 15 years to life. The reason was that Riley’s conviction didn’t depend on the erroneous admission into evidence of the digital contents of his cellphone.

How, if at all, does the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley impact the issue of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of metadata, which was not mentioned in Riley? The key lies in the term metadata, which doesn’t give any information about the contents of the calls. So Riley has no direct bearing on the NSA cases.