Do police have the right to search the contents of a smartphone -- often containing the massive details and photos of someone's life in digital form -- without a warrant after an arrest, and then use the results of that search against a suspect in court?
The Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable" searches protects the innocent and the guilty, anyone under suspicion. Otherwise, the guarantee would be meaningless.
Police can obtain a search warrant when they have "probable cause" to believe a crime has been committed. But there are emergency circumstances under which officials can conduct a search without a warrant -- if someone's life seems to be in danger or if important evidence is liable to be destroyed.
If one is arrested for any reason, and a cellphone is on the person or on the seat in a vehicle, do police have to show probable cause and get a search warrant before looking at its contents?
A May article in
The outcome in the high court cases could affect more than cellphones -- extending to other wireless devices such as tablets and laptops.
In the case out of
That issue proved too broad for the justices, who accepted the case for review but restricted the question to whether "evidence admitted at [the defendant's] trial was obtained in a search of [his] cellphone that violated [his] Fourth Amendment rights."
An officer pulled the car over because of expired tags, but after finding out that Riley was driving with a suspended license, impounded the car. Under
Police discovered two firearms under the car's hood, and arrested Riley for carrying concealed and loaded weapons.
An officer "seized" Riley's "cellphone from his person" -- a Samsung Instinct M800 smartphone, "a touch-screen device designed to compete with Apple's iPhone, capable of accessing the Internet, capturing photos and videos, and storing both voice and text messages, among other functions."
A police officer, without a warrant, "scrolled through the phone's contents at the scene. He noticed that some words (apparently in text messages and the phone's contacts list) normally beginning with the letter 'K' were preceded by the letter 'C,'" Riley's petition to the high court said. The officer "believed that the 'CK' prefix referred to 'Crip Killers,' a slang term for members of a criminal gang known as the 'Bloods.'"
Police performed a second warrantless search of Riley's smartphone at the police station. Riley wasn't talking, but a detective specializing in gang investigations went through the cellphone and found several photos and videos suggesting Riley was a member of a gang.
He also found a photo of Riley posing with another person in front of a red Oldsmobile owned by Riley that police believed had been used in an earlier gang-related shooting in which no one was hit. Ballistics tests on the recovered firearms linked them to the shooting.
Riley was charged along with two others with shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder and assault with a semiautomatic, all for the benefit of a street gang. The gang charge exposed him to enhanced sentences.
Though his co-defendants pleaded guilty, Riley went to trial, and his lawyers asked a judge to suppress all the evidence obtained from the searches of his cellphone, arguing it had been searched without a warrant and "without any exigency [emergency] otherwise justifying the search."
A state judge rejected the request, but Riley's first trial ended with a hung jury. In a second trial the cellphone evidence was again used, and a jury convicted him of all charges. But under state law, the judge restricted the conviction to the most serious charge, shooting at an occupied vehicle, which normally would draw a sentence of seven years. With the gang enhancement, the sentence was 15 years to life.
In successfully asking the
A joint friend-of-the-court brief from the
"This case presents a question regarding the impact of new technology in a context familiar to most Americans: today's mobile telephones -- known as 'smartphones' -- which can, and increasingly do, contain the equivalent of millions of physical pages of information, much of it highly personal.
"The particular issue is whether the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the requirement of a warrant and probable cause permits the government to review all of the information stored in a smartphone simply because an individual is carrying the phone when he or she is arrested."
The lower courts have reached conflicting conclusions, the joint brief said.
In opposing review,
"Together, this [U.S.
In the second case accepted by the
In that case,
But a federal appeals court panel majority threw out two of the convictions, saying evidence admitted in his trial had been unconstitutionally obtained from his "flip" cellphone. When the full
"As the court of appeals [panel] acknowledged, its decision also creates a square conflict with the Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Circuits and state supreme courts, including the
In opposing review, Wurie's brief also cited conflicts in the the lower courts, but reached the opposite conclusion. The brief said
"The Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Circuits and the highest courts of the states of
"The varied rationales underlying these opinions, the fact that eight United States Courts of Appeals (and most state high courts) have not addressed the issue in precedential opinions, and the rapid rate at which the technology involved is evolving, all [point to] waiting for the lower federal and state courts to further evaluate the array of legal issues and the impact of technological advances involved in this area before this [U.S. Supreme] Court resolves what differences, if any, will remain after further development."
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