Riley vs. California

Teachers, if you want to get your students talking about their Constitutional rights, this lesson is a must! The content of this lesson challenges students to debate what they think a law means, and how it should be interpreted. This lesson demonstrates the checks and balances of our democracy.

Available in Spanish

Grade Level: Grades 9-12

Time: One class period (approx. 50 minutes)


At the center of this lesson is the 4th Amendment of the Constitution of United States of America

  1. Analyze the Fourth Amendment

  2. Apply the Fourth Amendment and case precedent to specific case studies

  3. Weigh issues of public safety/security with individual rights from a constitutional framework

  4. Determine the flow of a case from the trial court (San Diego) up through the U.S. Supreme Court

Presentations & Handouts

  1. Lesson Plan

  2. Handouts

  1. Presentations

Note: This lesson ranks highest among students in Grades 9-12. Teachers may request the lesson for younger learners if they are advanced in their understanding of the Constitution and three branches of government. Source: Adapted from the lesson Judicial Decision Making and the Constitution developed by Justice Teaching.

Facts of the Case in this Lesson

David Leon Riley belonged to the Lincoln Park gang of San Diego, California. On August 2, 2009, he and others opened fire on a rival gang member driving past them. The shooters then got into Riley's Oldsmobile and drove away. On August 22, 2009, the police pulled Riley over driving a different car; he was driving on expired license registration tags. Because Riley's driver's license was suspended, police policy required that the car be impounded. Before a car is impounded, police are required to perform an inventory search to confirm that the vehicle has all its components at the time of seizure, to protect against liability claims in the future, and to discover hidden contraband. During the search, police located two guns and subsequently arrested Riley for possession of the firearms. Riley had his cell phone in his pocket when he was arrested, so a gang unit detective analyzed videos and photographs of Riley making gang signs and other gang indicia that were stored on the phone to determine whether Riley was gang affiliated. Riley was subsequently tied to the shooting on August 2 via ballistics tests, and separate charges were brought to include shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder, and assault with a semi-automatic firearm.

Before trial, Riley moved to suppress the evidence regarding his gang affiliation that had been acquired through his cell phone. His motion was denied. At trial, a gang expert testified to Riley's membership in the Lincoln Park gang, the rivalry between the gangs involved, and why the shooting could have been gang-related. The jury convicted Riley on all three counts and sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison. The California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 1, affirmed.


Was the evidence admitted at trial from Riley's cell phone discovered through a search that violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches?

Background Videos: Teachers may share these videos with their students in preparation for the lesson. Related article

Basics of the Case

Waiting for the Court's Decision

How did the Court rule?

More about this case:

  • Audio links to the oral arguments, and opinion announcement.

  • Facts of the Case, Question, and Conclusion summaries