The U.S. Supreme Court decision Wednesday in favor of a San Diego gang member convicted, in part, based on information gathered from his cellphone without a warrant does not guarantee that he will be released from prison, the Stanford law professor who was part of his appeals team said.
But it will allow attorneys for David Riley to return to state appeals court in San Diego to argue that Riley deserves a new trial because his original trial was "tainted" because of the cellphone evidence that the high court says was illegally obtained, said professor Jeffrey Fisher.
Fisher, co-director of Stanford's Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, said he and his students took up the Riley case because it was on the cutting-edge of privacy issues in the digital age.
When he asked his students whether they should take up the case, he said, they were immediately excited.
"We're here, near Silicon Valley," Fisher said, "and it's fair to say that the students are avid cellphone users. They were eager to work on a case that dealt with their lives and the future of privacy."
The students, he said, were the "driving force" behind the appeal to the Supreme Court.
Fisher, a former clerk for then-Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, said he had argued 23 cases at the Supreme Court before the Riley case, "winning some, losing some."
The court's 9-0 decision was a surprise, he said, adding: "We got everything we asked."
One small regret is that some of the students who worked on the case are gone for the summer for internships and other reasons. But Fisher said he is going to gather those who are still in the Palo Alto area.
"We're certainly going to gather up and raise a glass of something," he said.
While the legal issues are complex, the idea that cellphones -- "which can hold everything about your life" -- should not be subject to warrantless searches is profoundly simple, he said.
"The challenge was whether the justices would take into account the nature of cellular phones, whether they would adjust to the digital world," he said.
Riley, a member of San Diego's notorious Lincoln Park street gang, was arrested in August 2009 on suspicion of being among three men who fired shots at a rival gang member.
Weapons were found in Riley's car, according to court documents. Riley's DNA was found on the weapons.
Police seized his cellphone "which yielded videos and photographs showing Riley's gang affiliation," according to court documents. Among the information were the initials CK, which gang detectives said was code for "Crip Killer."
Riley was convicted of attempted murder, assault with an automatic weapons and shooting at an occupied vehicle. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, a conviction that was upheld by an appeals court in 2013.
Riley's trial attorney argued that the cellphone should not have been seized and searched. But an appeals court ruled that the cellphone falls "into the category of a booking search, the scope of which is very broad."
The U.S. Supreme Court decision reversed that finding, saying police should have sought a warrant.
Fisher said he has visited Riley, now in his early 20s, in prison.
"He's a nice kid, brought up in tough conditions, and he made some mistakes," he said. "But I'm convinced that if given a chance, he's going to do his best."