Court: Border Search Warrant Exception Beats Riley In The 'Constitution-Free Zone'
from the protections-arbitrarily-applied-to-protect-inland-electronic-devices dept
The Supreme Court declared in 2014 that law enforcement could no longer perform searches of cellphones incident to arrest without a warrant. The exceptions to this ruling are making themselves apparent already.
The area of the United States where the Constitution does not apply — while still being fully within the borders of the US — apparently exempts law enforcement from following this ruling in regards to cellphone searches. The Southern District of California has come to the conclusion that border searches are not Fourth Amendment searches and that the government has no need to seek a warrant before searching a cellphone.
The court notes the Riley decision says one thing but the “border exception” says another.
Heading in one direction is the Supreme Court’s bright line rule in Riley: law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant to search a cell phone incident to an arrest. Heading on a different course is the border search exception. The border search exception describes an exception to general Fourth Amendment principles. It is the notion that the government may search without a warrant anyone and anything coming across its border to protect its national sovereignty.
Balancing the two competing interests in this case, the court ultimately finds the government’s national security interest outweighs citizens’ privacy interests. As it weighs this against cases dealing with more elaborate and lengthy device searches at the border, the court basically finds that if the Fourth Amendment is violated by “cursory” searches of devices, it is only violated a little.
Reviewing the totality of the circumstances, the Caballero cell phone search: (1) took place at a port of entry; (2) was based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity; (3) was conducted manually and appeared to be a cursory search of the device’s contents; (4) did not involve the application of forensic software; (5) did not destroy the cell phone; (6) was performed in minutes, as opposed to hours or days; (7) was performed upon a device being brought into the country, rather than being taken out of the country; and (8) was performed approximately four hours after Caballero was placed under arrest. Other than the last factor, each of these factors was either similar to or less intrusive than the warrantless search Cotterman decided was reasonable.
The “border exception” the court carves out for a warrantless search of cellphones at the border somehow relies on exceptions carved out in the original Riley decision, despite saying Riley doesn’t control border searches.
The two cases can be reconciled. The most obvious path for reconciliation is to conclude that the border search exception is among the traditional exceptions to which Riley’s warrant requirement does not apply. This approach finds safe footing in the Supreme Court’s statement that “other” “exceptions” may continue to justify a warrantless search. Riley, 134 S. Ct. at 2494 (“Moreover, even though the search incident to arrest exception does not apply to cell phones, other case-specific exceptions may still justify a warrantless search of a particular phone.”). It also is consistent with the observation from Montoya de Hernandez, (473 U.S. at 539), about when balancing individual privacy rights against rights of the sovereign, the balance “is qualitatively different . . . than in the interior” and the balance is “struck much more favorably to the Government.” This approach also avoids the spectacle of deeming that Riley undercut 200 years of border search doctrine without even a mention.
Not as much of a “spectacle” as the California court would think, considering the Riley decision set aside years and years of the government relying on dubious analogies like “containers” or “pair of pants” to justify the search and seizure of anything carried on or near a person (like in their vehicle) incident to arrest. It may not date back 200 years, but it does date back to the Fourth Amendment itself, which is a controlling authority with more than 200 years worth of history.
The case here deals with an actual border crossing (Calexico, California) but the government has basically declared any area within 100 miles of a border can be called “the border” for the sake of searches and detainments predicated on reasonable suspicion or, in many cases, law enforcement hunches.
As for this case, it’s hardly the ideal test for balancing Riley against the border search exception. For one, the defendant challenging the warrantless cellphone search was already neck-deep in reasonable suspicion, thanks to the discovery of drugs in his vehicle. Officers on scene had more than enough reason to detain him and likely had uncovered enough damning evidence to support a warrant affidavit. Of course, they did not seek one. Instead, they briefly browsed his phone until they found further suspicious content.
Some courts refuse to give officers a pass when they could have gotten a warrant but choose not to. Those courts are in the minority. This court is part of the majority.
Here, illicit narcotics had been discovered. Caballero had been arrested. Reasonable suspicion had jelled into probable cause. For the time being, he and his cell phone were safely in the hands of government agents. Other than the increased administrative work required, there is no apparent reason why Riley’s search warrant requirement could not be applied without undercutting the interests supporting the border search doctrine. One can certainly say that Riley casts doubt on Cotterman’s approval of warrantless searches where an arrest is made. Nevertheless, as long as this Court can apply circuit precedent without running afoul of intervening authority, it must do so.
Being within 100 miles of the border means never having to seek a warrant, even if the government has both the time and the probable cause to do so… at least until someone manages to push a challenge up to the appeals court level or beyond.