The search-and-seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment are all about privacy. To honor this freedom, the Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable” searches and seizures by state or federal law enforcement authorities. However, law enforcement may override your privacy concerns and conduct a search of you, your home, office, personal or business documents, bank account records, etc. if they have probable cause to believe they can find evidence that you committed a crime and a judge issues a warrant or the particular circumstances justify the search without a warrant first being issued. In 2014 the United States Supreme Court addressed several issues surrounding the Fourth Amendment.
In Riley v California, 134 S Ct 2473, the court unanimously held a warrantless search and seizure of the digital contents of a cell phone during an arrest is unconstitutional. Mr. Riley was arrested after a traffic stop revealed loaded firearms in his car. The officers took Mr. Riley’s cell phone and searched through it. Based on the data stored on the phone, he was charged and convicted of a shooting that had taken place several weeks earlier. The California Supreme Court held the seizure of Riley’s cell phone was lawful because it occurred during a “search incident to arrest.” The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and held a warrant is required to search a cell phone. Chief Justice Roberts stated that digital data stored on a cell phone cannot by itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestees escape. Police remain free to examine the physical aspects of the phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon. The court held out the possibility that although the search incident to an arrest exception does not apply to cell phones, the exigent circumstances exception may give law enforcement justification for a warrantless search in particular cases.
Prado Navanette v. California, 134 S Ct 1683, involved a traffic stop based on an anonymous 911 call. The caller reported a vehicle had run him off the road. The caller gave a specific description of the vehicle including the license plate number. Police officers found and stopped the vehicle in spite of the fact that the driver had not committed a traffic violation. After the vehicle was stopped the officers smelled the odor of marijuana. Thirty pounds of marijuana was discovered in the vehicle. The driver was arrested. The validity of the arrest depended on the legality of the stop. The issue presented was whether the Fourth Amendment required an officer who received information regarding drunken or reckless driving to observe the behavior before stopping the vehicle. The Supreme Court said no. The Supreme Court found the information from the 911 caller had sufficient specificity that provided an indicia of reliability to justify the stop. A stop based on an anonymous tip does not violate the Fourth Amendment if the officer has reason to believe the information is reliable. The court held that because the anonymous tip had indicators of reliability the officer had sufficient reasonable suspicion and did not need observe the alleged behavior at length before the stop.
Fernandez v California, 134 S Ct 1126, involved a call regarding domestic abuse. Previously in United States v. Matlock, the Supreme Court laid out the “Co-Occupant Consent Rule.” That rule meant that anyone who has “common authority” over the home can consent to the search of the home without a warrant. In Georgia v. Randolph, the court limited this holding, deciding the police cannot conduct a search if a physically present co-occupant objects to the search. In Fernandez the court held that when one occupant is legitimately arrested and taken from the scene the remaining occupant can consent to the search.
The recent Supreme Court decisions surrounding the Fourth Amendment can be expected to have a significant impact upon future cases involving searches and seizures by state or federal law enforcement authorities.
Allan Vander Laan is a partner in our Grand Rapids office where he concentrates his practice on municipal law, premises liability and insurance law. He may be reached at (616) 975-7470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.