In a case that pits expectations of privacy against the interests
of the law enforcement community, the court will hear one-hour
arguments in two cases.
The nine justices are weighing cases from California and
Massachusetts arising from criminal prosecutions that used evidence
obtained without a warrant from a judge.
cellphones, initially used purely to make calls, now contain a
wealth of personal information about the owner, including
photographs, video and social media content. According to a 2013
report by the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of adult Americans
have a cellphone, more than a half of them smartphones that can
connect to the Internet.
Concerns about increasing government encroachment on personal
privacy, especially in relation to electronic communications, has
surged into the public eye over the last year in light of the
disclosures made by former National Security Agency contractor
Edward Snowden about government surveillance.
The cellphone cases arrive at the court two years after the court
unanimously held that police need a warrant before they can put GPS
tracking devices on vehicles.
That ruling was a signal that the court is concerned about how
technology affects privacy rights, according to defense lawyer Gerry
Morris, a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense
"You are starting to see much more awareness on the part of the
court to the dangers to liberty that technology can pose," he said
in an interview.
In the cellphone cases, the legal question rests on whether the
Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars unreasonable
searches, requires police following an arrest to get court approval
before a cellphone can be searched.
The two defendants challenging their convictions, David Riley and
Brima Wurie, say evidence found on their phones should not have been
used as evidence at trial because the searches were conducted
According to court precedent, police only have two valid reasons for
searching items immediately upon arrest: officer safety and the need
to secure evidence that could otherwise be easily discarded. In the
past, police officers have not needed warrants to look at items such
as wallets, calendars, address books and diaries.
Digital rights activists and criminal defense lawyers are among the
groups supporting Riley and Wurie say cellphone data is not a
safety risk and can, in most cases, be easily secured.
State and federal government lawyers have told the court that
searching a cellphone is no different than warrantless searches of
other items commonly found on a person at the time of arrest. The
administration of President Barack Obama is backed by 16 states in
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"While technology has increased the amount of information an
individual may practically choose to carry, neither the form nor the
volume of the information at issue here provides a sound basis for
redrawing clearly established Fourth Amendment lines," Kamala
Harris, the Democratic attorney general for California, said in
court papers dismissing the need for a warrant.
She noted that potential evidence held on a cellphone could be
vulnerable if not searched for immediately. Some phones, for
example, might automatically delete some data after a certain time
or allow for data to be deleted remotely.
In the first case, Riley was convicted of three charges relating to
an August 2009 incident in San Diego in which shots were fired at an
Local prosecutors linked him to the crime in part due to a
photograph police found on his smartphone that showed him posing in
front of a car similar to one seen at the crime scene. Riley sought
the high court's review after his convictions were upheld by a state
appeals court in California.
In the other case, the U.S. government appealed after an appeals
court threw out two of three federal drugs and firearms counts on
which Wurie had been convicted by a jury in Massachusetts.
The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a May
2013 ruling that police could not search Wurie's phone without a
warrant after the September 2007 arrest for suspected drug dealing.
A major difference between the cases is that Wurie's phone, unlike
Riley's, is not a smartphone. Officers used the phone only to find a
phone number that took them to Wurie's house in Boston, where drugs,
a gun and cash were found.
Rulings are expected by the end of June. The cases are Riley v.
California, 13-132 and U.S. v. Wurie, 13-212.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia
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