Global Freedom of Expression

Riley v. California

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    June 25, 2014
  • Outcome
    Remanded for Decision in Accordance with Ruling
  • Case Number
    134 S.Ct. 2473
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Privacy, Data Protection and Retention
  • Tags
    Search Warrant

Content Attribution Policy

Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:

  • Attribute Columbia Global Freedom of Expression as the source.
  • Link to the original URL of the specific case analysis, publication, update, blog or landing page of the down loadable content you are referencing.

Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.

Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Supreme Court of the United States held that a warrantless search and seizure of the digital contents of a cell phone during an arrest violates the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Police stopped a driver for driving with expired registration tags, and the arresting officer searched the contents of his smartphone. The court wrote that “cell phones differ in both a quantitative and qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person” and therefore generally require a warrant to search.


Riley was stopped by police for a traffic violation and his car was impounded. Police performed a routine inventory search of Riley’s car, discovering firearms. The police arrested Riley for possession of concealed and loaded firearms. As a result of his arrest, Riley’s cell phone was seized from his pants pocket. Police examined Riley’s cell phone, looking for evidence of gang-related crimes. As a result of evidence found on Riley’s cell phone, he was charged with a shooting and an attempted murder. Prior to trial, Riley moved to suppress the evidence found in his cell phone on the grounds that the search violated his Fourth Amendment right against warrantless searches. The trial court denied his motion, and the California Court of Appeals affirmed.

In the second case consolidate for review, Wurie was observed selling drugs by police officers. When he was arrested, the police officers seized two cell phones that were in Wurie’s possession. The officers used Wurie’s phone to find an address to an apartment building. After obtaining a warrant, police searched the building, and the officers found various drugs, drug paraphernalia, weapons, and cash. Wurie was charged with possession of drugs, and firearms and ammunition. Prior to trial, Wurie moved to suppress the evidence, alleging that the search of the building was unconstitutional and therefore the evidence found from the search was inadmissible. The trial court denied Wurie’s motion.  The appeals court reversed the trial court, holding that during searches incident to arrest, cell phones are not objects that fall under an exception to the warrant requirement because cell phones contain a significant amount of personal data.

Decision Overview

Roberts, J., delivered the opinion of the Court. The United States Supreme Court was presented with a Fourth Amendment issue of whether police may, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone that was seized during the course of an arrest. The Court held that, generally, a warrant is required before searching a cell phone that has been seized during an arrest, and that the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement does not apply to cell phones.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court analyzed the importance of cell phones and the data that they contain. The Court rejected the government’s argument about the exigency created by possible remote destruction of cell phone data by a third party. The Court determined that digital data stored on a cell phone does not immediately endanger anyone, and cannot be considered a weapon that can harm an officer or a means to assist in an arrestee’s escape.

Alito, J., concurred in part and concurred in the judgment.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

This case expands expression because it recognizes the importance that cell phones, and the information stored in them, play in daily modern society. The Court did not expressly discuss freedom of expression or information because the case hinged on the Fourth Amendment right against warrantless searches. However, the case is significant because it sets guidelines for future cases on the importance of digital information that is stored on cell phones.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Const. amend. IV

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Lower state and federal courts in the United States will be required to recognize that cell phones seized during an arrest are not objects that fall within to the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement.

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:

Amicus Briefs and Other Legal Authorities

  • Brief of Constitutional Accountability Ctr. as Amicus Curiae in Support of Riley and Wurie
  • Brief of Ctr. for Democracy & Tech. & Elec. Frontier Found. as Amicus Curiae in Support of Riley and Wurie
  • Brief of Amici Curiae of Criminal Law Professors in Support of Petitioner Riley and Respondent Wurie
  • Brief amici curiae of the ACLU, et al, as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioner
  • Brief of the Nat'l Assoc. of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y. Univ. Sch. of Law as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioner
  • Brief Amicus Curiae of DKT Liberty Project in Support of Petitioner
  • Brief of Amicus Curiae of Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. (EPIC), et al., in Support of Petitioner
  • Brief Amici Curiae of Nat'l Press Photographers Assoc., et al., in Support of Petiioner Riley and Respondent Wurie
  • Brief of Amici Curiae — Professors Charles E. MacLean & Adam Lamparello in Support of Neither Party
  • Brief for the Cato Institute as Amicus Curiae in Support of the Petitioner
  • Brief of Amici Curiae of Assoc. of State Criminal Investigative Agencies, et al., in Support of Respondent
  • Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Respondent
  • Brief of the States of Arizona, et al., as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondent

  • Reports, Analysis, and News Articles:

    Have comments?

    Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.

    Send Feedback