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Note: You Should Be Free To Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk: Applying Riley v. California to Smart Activity Trackers

By Katharine Saphner. Full text here.

In 2014, the Supreme Court held in Riley v. California that law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant before searching a cell phone. Though the Court intended that this holding would provide clear guidance to law enforcement officers, it may ultimately provide even more confusion. Riley distinguishes an arrestee’s cell phone from other items found on his person at the time of arrest which may constitutionally be searched without a warrant. Though Riley’s holding was specific to cell phones, cell phones are not the only “smart” devices people carry on their person. This Note addresses how courts and law enforcement agencies should apply Riley to searches of other smart devices, with a focus on smart activity trackers, which have the capacity to store heart rate and GPS data.

This Note proposes that courts and law enforcement agencies should interpret Riley as endorsing a two-tiered approach that carefully distinguishes searches of physical items from searches of the digital data contained within those devices. Law enforcement officers should be allowed to perform warrantless searches of the physical devices themselves for the purpose of officer protection, but searches of the digital data contained on any smart device should require a warrant. Under exigent circumstances, however, officers should be able to access digital data even without a warrant. This Note also proposes that law enforcement agencies should take care to educate their officers frequently regarding various items of wearable technology so that officers will recognize these devices at the scene of arrest and know instantly that the device has the capacity to hold incredibly valuable data and that they should immediately seek a warrant to search the device’s contents