Taking up cases from California and Massachusetts arising from
criminal prosecutions that used evidence obtained without a warrant,
the high court will wade into how to apply older court precedent,
which allows police to search items carried by a defendant at the
time of arrest, to cell phones.
cellphones have evolved from devices used exclusively to make calls
into gadgets that now contain a bounty of personal information about
The legal question before the justices is whether a search for such
information after a defendant is arrested violates the Fourth
Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans unreasonable
searches. The outcome would determine whether prosecutors in such
circumstances could submit evidence gleaned from cellphones in
Digital rights activists have sounded the alarm about the amount of
personal data the government can now easily access, not just in the
criminal context, but also in relation to national security
President Barack Obama on Friday announced plans to rein in the vast
collection of Americans' phone data in a series of limited reforms
prompted by disclosures by former National Security Agency
contractor Edward Snowden about the sweep of U.S. eavesdropping
Stanford Law School professor Jeffrey Fisher, who represents one of
the defendants, said in court papers that it was important for the
high court to decide the issue.
"In light of the frequency with which people are arrested with
cellphones and the judiciary's confusion over whether the police may
search the digital contents of those phones, this court's
intervention is critical," Fisher said.
According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of
adult Americans have a cell phone, more than a half of which are
smartphones that can connect to the Internet and contain personal
data from social media websites and other sources.
Under court precedent, police are permitted to search at the time of
an arrest without a warrant, primarily to ensure the defendant is
not armed and to secure evidence that could otherwise be destroyed.
In the past, it has applied to such items as wallets, calendars,
address books and diaries.
In the case involving Fisher's client, David Riley was convicted of
three charges relating to an August 2009 incident in San Diego in
which shots were fired at an occupied vehicle.
Prosecutors linked him to the crime in part due to a photograph on
his smartphone that showed him posing in front of a car similar to
one seen at the crime scene. The photograph was shown to the jury at
trial, as were videos that showed Riley making gang-related
Police searched the phone after pulling over Riley's car for having
expired tags 20 days after the shooting. Riley sought the high
court's review after his convictions were upheld by a state appeals
court in California.
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In the other case, the federal government appealed after an appeals
court threw out two of three drugs and firearms counts on which
Brima 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.
One major difference between the cases is that Wurie's phone, unlike
Riley's, is not a smartphone. Officers used the phone only to search
the phone log. They were able to find a phone number that took them
to Wurie's house in Boston, where drugs, a gun and cash were found.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil rights group
based in San Francisco, urged the court to hear the case in a
"I think it's another opportunity for the court to decide how
changes in technology implicate the Fourth Amendment," one of the
group's lawyers, Hanni Fakhoury, said in an interview.
Fakhoury, a former federal public defender, said that searches of
cellphones upon arrest are routine in the vast majority of
The U.S. Justice Department defended the practice in its brief
urging the court to hear the Wurie case. Government lawyers say
searching a cellphone is no different than searching other items
commonly found on a person at the time of arrest.
A prohibition against the searches would be particularly troublesome
to prosecutors because of "the ubiquity of cellphone use by drug
traffickers and other serious offenders," the government lawyers
The court will hear oral arguments in April and issue rulings by the
end of June. The cases are Riley v. California, 13-132 and U.S. v.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Will Dunham and James Dalgleish)
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