Recent U.S. Supreme Court Cell Phone Search Decisions do not Change the Standard for School District Searches, But Emphasize Cell Phone Privacy

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court found that the exemptions for warrantless searches of arrestees for weapons or evidence, justified by the need for officer safety and to prevent destruction of evidence, did not apply to searching electronic data on a cell phone.  The Court unanimously ruled that the police need warrants to search cellphones of people they arrest.  The court heard arguments in two cases and issued one decision.

The first case, Riley v. California, No. 13-132, involved the arrest of David L. Riley, who was pulled over in San Diego in 2009 for having an expired auto registration.  The police found loaded guns in his car and seized a cell phone from the suspect’s pants pocket.  After inspecting his cell phone, the police also found entries they associated with a street gang.  A more comprehensive search of the phone led to information that linked Mr. Riley to a shooting.  He was later convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.  A California appeals court said neither search had required a warrant.

The second case, United States v. Wurie, No. 13-212, involved a search of the call log of the cell phone of Brima Wurie, who was arrested in 2007 in Boston and charged with gun and drug crimes.  A frequently used number on the cell phone was used to trace the number to Wurie’s apartment where the police found drugs, a firearm and ammunition, and cash.  Wurie was charged with drug and firearm offenses.  Last year, the federal appeals court in Boston threw out the evidence found on Mr. Wurie’s phone.

The Supreme Court has previously established that a different legal standard applies to school searches than to police searches.  In New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) 469 U.S. 325, the Court found that the interests of school districts in maintaining a proper learning environment allow for warrantless searches of students, as long as the search is justified at its inception and reasonable in its scope.  There does not appear to be anything in the Riley decision that overturns this existing distinction between police officers searching arrestees and school administrators searching students.

Districts should be careful, however, to ensure that any search of cell phone data is justified and reasonable based upon the circumstances.  The school administrator’s duty to maintain a safe school environment usually justifies confiscation of a cell phone and further investigation thereof if there is evidence of a violation of school rules or policy.  Searches become unreasonable when the scope of the search exceeds the initial justification for the search.  For example, it would not be reasonable for a school to confiscate a student’s phone for texting during class and then search through the photos stored on the phone.  A minor violation of school rules does not justify a multiple levels search of a cell phone or other electronic device.  If a District believes that it is justified and reasonable to search cell phone data, it is best to obtain the written consent of the student before searching through any data.

This case demonstrates an emerging legal trend finding that the data contents of cell phones have significant privacy implications.  Long before the Riley case, searching of student cell phone data has been the subject of litigation by the ACLU and others.

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