Stanford law clinic argues case for separate cell phone search warrants

Aug. 12, 2014, 1:45 a.m.

On June 25, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that cell phone searches now require their own, individual search warrants. The Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic worked under the supervision of co-director Jeffrey Fisher to help defendant David Leon Riley win his appeal.

Comprised of a group of Stanford law students, the clinic has argued over 30 cases in the Supreme Court, with students acting as litigators for the cases. Two Stanford faculty members run the clinic, and each quarter, a new group of students are selected through an application process.

The students look though the copious number of awaiting Supreme Court cases and decide which ones would be interesting to represent. The cases that they choose from are already part of the appeals process, and the students help represent defendants in the defendant’s last court. After they have selected their case, the students go through the same process that licensed lawyers would but instead represent their chosen client for free.

The most recent case that the students chose to work on was Riley v. California. What attracted them to this particular case was its focus on electronic devices.

Riley, who was pulled over in 2009 after driving with a suspended license, was found with two loaded guns and a cell phone loaded with gang-related videos and photographs. All of the evidence led to his 15-year prison sentence on charges of assault and attempted murder.

The clinic, however, argued that since cell phones now carry so much personal data, the search of Riley’s phone by policemen was unconstitutional.

“Even though you’re carrying a [cell phone], doing a search of the device is more like brain-sucking your entire home and office given the amount of information [your phone] holds,” Fisher said.

Before the new law, the general procedure regarding cell phone searches was that policemen had the right to search anything that a chased suspect was carrying without getting a warrant.

“It was cleanly presented,” said Stanford law student Alec Schierenbeck ’15. “The case offered an opportunity to answer this fourth amendment question without interference from ancillary questions.”

During their research, the students looked at prior cases in order to create their persuasive arguments. They took every argument the government made and provided a case against it.

“When you get to the Supreme Court, you are no longer dong factual investigation and finding witnesses,” Fisher said. “It’s not so much what happened as much as what should the law be.”

Although the government claimed that police should be able to access devices as quickly as possible to prevent people from wiping their devices or concealing evidence, the students showed that the argument was futile since everyday actions could also easily hide information on a cell phone. These actions include putting a phone in airplane mode, turning it off and on and disabling certain functions.

According to Fisher, the 12 students who worked on the case did everything short of duty oral arguments, or the speeches in court, for the justices.

“The students got really engaged and did a terrific job,” Fisher said.

The students involved with the case were also extremely satisfied with the results. Responsible for the reply brief, Schierenbeck helped respond to the arguments made by the government during the course of the trial.

“I think that the decision is likely to change police behavior on the ground, and it will likely affect many criminal prosecutions,” Schierenbeck said.

In addition to its importance for future prosecutions, Schierenbeck also spoke about the case’s importance in his own career.

“It was an opportunity I’m not sure I’ll have again in my entire legal career,” Schierenbeck said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being the most important case I ever got a chance to work on.”


Contact Noa Livneh at livnehn ‘at’ gmail ‘dot’ com.

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