Today's Big Supreme Court Case: Cellphone Searches
At issue: Can cops search them without a warrant?
By Kate Seamons, Newser Staff
Posted Apr 29, 2014 7:24 AM CDT
Updated Apr 29, 2014 7:46 AM CDT
To search, or not to search?   (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

(Newser) – Two cases in front of the Supreme Court today have been getting a good deal of advance press, due in no small part to the impact they could have on the way hundreds of thousands of Americans are treated when they're arrested. Or, more specifically, how their cellphones are treated. At issue: Can police search a suspect's cellphone without a warrant? What you need to know:

  • The amendment at the center of this: The 4th. It prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, which generally means police need to secure a search warrant outlining what evidence they're hunting for. "Generally," because there are exceptions—police can search people and their personal effects, like photos and address books, at their time of arrest sans warrant, ostensibly to find weapons that could harm police and to keep evidence from being destroyed. But in the pre-cellphone era, those searches were "self-limiting," NPR points out, "meaning they were limited by the amount of information an individual could carry on his person."

  • The search an appeals court upheld: In 2009, David Riley was pulled over in San Diego for driving with expired tags; a search of his car turned up handguns. His phone was searched, and photos and texts on it revealed alleged gang ties—and led police to connect Riley with a then-recent gang shooting. He was charged and sentenced to 15 years.
  • And the one it did not: Brima Wurie was arrested in Boston in 2007 in connection with allegedly dealing crack. His phone rang while in custody, and that number was traced to a Boston address where drugs and weapons were found; that information was used to secure a 22-year sentence, which was later overturned.
  • Those in favor of the searches: Say a warrant exception is appropriate because of the impact cellphones can have on officer safety (they could be used to detonate an explosive) and evidence (they could be programmed to wipe away data), reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Those against: Say those risks can easily be mitigated, by securing the phone, placing it in an insulated bag that would prevent remote erasure of data, and then getting a search warrant.
  • The justice to watch: Antonin Scalia, who the Los Angeles Times describes as the "new champion of the 4th Amendment" and sees as playing a "crucial role" today.
  • When the cases will be resolved: by the end of June.

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Showing 3 of 32 comments
DW007
Apr 30, 2014 2:22 PM CDT
Another example of how antiquated laws provide an opening for the abuse of citizens and their personal data. Clearly, a personal, digital communication & data storage device (ie "cel phone") is not what current law was based upon. I have the expectation of privacy for my personal data, wherever it is located. I personally find it irritating when lawmakers/others state what my privacy expectation is, or should be. The below example of a police officer "arresting then seizing" such a device merely to destroy/control photographic evidence of police abuse is only 1 example of why a warrant should be required. People generally don't mind a little shaving of their personal rights for the sake of stopping terrorists, but we all know it wouldn't stop there. The data they take is permanent, and can/will be used against you at any point during the remainder of your natural life, and perhaps even afterwards. Secure the device to protect from data wipe and go get your warrant. In the meantime, law enforcement's zeal to demand the right to seize such devices with out a warrant, only drives a wedge further between law enforcement and the public they are supposed to serve, while also encouraging hackers to sell us protection. Stop it.
Crazy Horse
Apr 30, 2014 12:10 PM CDT
The cell phone has become a serious weapon in the fight against police brutality. Witnesses who have videoed the police using brutal and lethal force have themselves been arrested for obstruction of justice and video evidence erased from their phones without permission. .
JERZJOE
Apr 30, 2014 7:02 AM CDT
hey!! THAT BOOK & MOVIE "1984"!! WAS A LITTLE BIT BEHIND ON THE DATE TO ME!! IT SHOULD OF BEEN "2014"!! THERE YA GO!!