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

(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.

To search, or not to search?
To search, or not to search?   (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)
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