San Diego gang member’s case focus of Supreme Court privacy ruling


When David Riley, a 19-year-old member of San Diego’s Lincoln Park gang, was arrested in August 2009 on suspicion of shooting at a rival gang member, it received little or no public notice.

The same was true when Riley’s first trial ended in a hung jury, and when he was convicted at a second trial of attempted murder and other charges, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

But now Riley’s name has assumed national legal prominence as one of two cases that led to Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that extended privacy rights to cellphones, a sweeping ruling for the digital age when information about a person’s entire life can be stored in a mobile device.


“We got everything we wanted,” said Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher, who was part of the team that argued the case at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court ruled 9 to 0 that police acted improperly when they seized Riley’s smartphone without a warrant and discovered evidence used at his trial linking him to the gang and the shooting.

The decision does not free Riley from prison, but it could allow his attorneys to seek a new trial on grounds that the original trial was “tainted” because of the phone information, Fisher said.

In upholding Riley’s conviction in 2013, a California appeals court said that cellular phone information was akin to things pulled out of a defendant’s pocket during a post-arrest search and thus did not merit special protection.

Legal analysts said Wednesday’s ruling would clearly apply to defendants whose cases are still pending in the courts, but may not help those, like Riley, whose convictions are already final.

“There probably will be a good deal of litigation over whether this decision can be applied retroactively,” said Dennis Riordan, an appellate criminal defense lawyer based in San Francisco.


Charles M. Sevilla, a San Diego appellate criminal defense lawyer, said those defendants whose convictions are final will face “an uphill battle” in trying to persuade courts to reexamine their cases.

But the complications are unlikely to stop lawyers from trying.

Lyn A. Woodward, who represented the losing defendant in a 2011 California Supreme Court case that gave police the right to search cellphones without warrants, said she intended to examine the possibility of reopening her former client’s case. The U.S. Supreme Court previously refused to review the decision.

The 5-2 California Supreme Court ruling that was repudiated Wednesday was written by Justice Ming W. Chin, who said the search was legal under binding U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar dissented, arguing that the precedents applied to searches of clothing and cigarette packages and were not analogous to phone searches. Former Justice Carlos Moreno joined her dissent.

San Diego attorney Edward Kinsey, who represented Riley at both of his trials, said the Supreme Court’s decision was a victory for Riley and for the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Too many court decisions in recent years have allowed exceptions to the protection, leading to a “rapid expansion” of authorities seizing information, he said.

San Diego Deputy Dist. Atty. James Simmons, who prosecuted Riley, said the cellphone information “definitely was not the heart of our case. We also had witness statements, including his girlfriend who put him at the scene of the shooting, and his DNA on the weapon.”

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. David Greenberg said that if the 4th District Court of Appeals says Riley is eligible for a new trial, the D.A.’s office will have to review the case in-depth to decide whether to retry him.

But Greenberg also noted that the Lincoln Park gang, loosely affiliated with the nationwide Bloods gang, is “a very violent gang that we’ve been prosecuting for a long time. Many people, innocent people, not just other gang members, have been killed by this gang.”

In the Riley case, the rival gang member was not hit, although he crashed his vehicle. Along with attempted murder, Riley was also convicted of shooting into an occupied vehicle and assault with an automatic weapon. Two co-defendants pleaded guilty.

Riley was also convicted of pimping and forcing women into prostitution.

Weapons were found in Riley’s car after he was stopped for an expired license plate and his DNA was found on the weapons, according to court documents.

Police seized his cellphone “which yielded videos and photographs showing Riley’s gang affiliation,” according to court documents. Fisher, co-director of Stanford’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, said he and his law school students took up his case because it was at the cutting edge of privacy issues in the digital age.

His students proved to be the “driving force,” he said.

“We’re here, near Silicon Valley, and it’s fair to say that the students are avid cellphone users,” Fisher said. “They were eager to work on a case that dealt with their lives and the future of privacy.”

One small regret is that some of the students who worked on the case are gone for the summer. But Fisher said he was going to gather those still in the Palo Alto area.

“We’re certainly going to gather up and raise a glass of something,” he said.

Fisher said he has visited Riley in prison in Kern County.

“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.”

Perry reported from San Diego, Dolan from San Francisco.