The Strife of Riley: The Search-Incident Consequences of Making an Easy Case Simple
43 Pages Posted: 18 Oct 2014
Date Written: October 15, 2014
In Riley v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment requires police officers to obtain a warrant before searching an arrestee’s cellular phone in a search incident to a lawful arrest. The lauded decision heralds the modernization of the Fourth Amendment to embrace privacy in the digital age. But Riley’s reasoning contains a flaw that only Justice Alito recognized. Evidence gathering — i.e., the need to look for evidence of the arrestee’s crime for use at trial — has long justified law enforcement’s authority to perform incident searches. Indeed, evidence-gathering searches incident to arrest were recognized as legitimate searches over a century before the adoption of the Fourth Amendment. The Riley Court ignored this pedigree, however. Despite the doctrine’s centuries-long history, Riley concluded that the authority to search incident to arrest was defined by a trilogy of cases — California v. Chimel, United States v. Robinson, and Arizona v. Gant — cases that date back only to 1969. Based on the Chimel line, Riley concluded that the justifications for performing an incident search were limited to officer safety and preventing the destruction of evidence. And the only evidence-gathering incident search that Riley recognized was based on Gant; an incident search of the passenger compartment of an arrestee’s vehicle that Riley justified solely on the “unique circumstances” involved in the automobile context, not the search incident doctrine’s historical evidence-gathering basis. Therein lies the concern. By ignoring the doctrine’s evidence-gathering history, Riley has reorganized the search-incident doctrine into a rigid Chimel-based rule that just so happens to have a vehicle exception.
This Article amplifies Justice Alito’s admonition that evidence gathering must be recognized as a legitimate justification for police to search incident to arrest. This Article addresses the consequences of Riley’s digital-age reboot of the search-incident doctrine, especially Riley’s limitation of Gant to the vehicle context — a restriction that was, ironically enough, not necessary for imposing a warrant requirement on cell phone searches. Rather than relying solely on Chimel’s two “concerns,” this Article argues that the search-incident doctrine has been supported — both before and after Chimel — by three justifications: officer safety, preservation of evidence, and importantly, the need to discover evidence of the crime of arrest. Without evidence gathering as an implicit justification in a properly limited search incident to arrest, Riley’s limitation of Gant calls into doubt law enforcement’s authority to perform an incident search of an arrestee’s reaching distance — a Chimel search — to look for evidence of the arrestee’s crime once the arrestee has been handcuffed and is adequately secured. All things considered, Riley represents much more than a commonsense warrant requirement for cell phone searches. Riley is the deceptively simple beginning of the end of evidence gathering as a justification in a properly limited search incident to arrest.
Keywords: Fourth Amendment, search incident to arrest, cell phone, evidence gathering search, Riley v. California, Chimel v. California, United States v. Robinson, Arizona v. Gant, United States v. Wurie, search and seizure
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