WASHINGTON ? The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a pair of cases about whether the police need a warrant to search the cellphones of people they arrest, presenting a major test of the meaning of the Fourth Amendment in the digital age.
The court has long allowed warrantless searches in connection with arrests, saying they are justified by the need to find weapons and to prevent the destruction of evidence. The question for the justices in the new cases is whether the potentially vast amounts of data held on smartphones warrant a different approach under the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches.
The lower courts are divided. In one of the cases the court agreed to hear, the federal appeals court in Boston in May threw out evidence gathered after the police there inspected the call log of a drug dealer?s rudimentary flip phone. ?Today, many Americans store their most personal ?papers? and ?effects? in electronic format, on a cellphone, carried on the person,? Judge Norman H. Stahl wrote for a divided three-judge panel of the court.
?That information is, by and large, of a highly personal nature: photographs, videos, written and audio messages (text, email, and voice mail), contacts, calendar appointments, web search and browsing history, purchases, and financial and medical records,? he added.
When the full appeals court declined to rehear the case, Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch said she hoped the justices would soon address the ?very important and very complex? questions presented by it. ?Only the Supreme Court can finally resolve these issues, and I hope it will,? she wrote.
In urging the Supreme Court to hear the case, United States v. Wurie, No. 13-212, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said courts have long endorsed inspection of anything carried by the people they arrest, including wallets, calendars, pocket diaries, address books and pagers.
In February, a state appeals court in California applied the principles established in those cases to allow a search of a smartphone containing much more information than the one seized in Boston. That case arose from the arrest of David L. Riley, who was pulled over for having an expired auto registration. The police found loaded guns in the car and, on inspecting Mr. Riley?s smartphone, entries they associated with a street gang.
A more comprehensive search of the phone led to information that linked Mr. Riley to a shooting. He was later convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years to life.
His lawyers asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, Riley v. California, No. 13-132, to determine how the Fourth Amendment applies to a device ?that happens to include a phone? but is in essence a computer ?capable of storing a virtually limitless amount of information.? They argued that a warrant should be required ?before allowing the police to rummage through the digital contents of such a device.?
In agreeing Friday to hear that case, the justices said they would decide a narrower question than the one proposed by Mr. Riley?s lawyers, that of whether evidence admitted at Mr. Riley?s trial was obtained by a search that violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
Debate question: Do you believe that cellphones / smartphones should be treated similar to computers (i.e. search warrant required) or not expected to be covered by the 4th Amendment.