police cell phone

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The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether or not police should be allowed to search cell phones without a warrant.

The Fourth Amendment bars unreasonable searches, but it was written prior to the digital age we live in.


The court has long allowed warrantless searches in conjunction with arrests, citing the need to find weapons and prevent evidence from being destroyed.  These warrantless searches have been upheld by the court, in regards to all types of personal property found on a person under arrest, including wallets, pagers, pocket diaries, address books, and calendars.

With smart phones being able to do pretty much anything and everything, there’s a vast range of highly personal data that can be found, including some things that are all ready protected by privacy laws, such as medical records.

A cell phone today is no longer just a cell phone, used solely for the purpose of phone calls.

It’s now possible–and convenient–to virtually encapsulate your entire existence on a phone:  music, books, contacts, calendar appointments, financial records, medical records, photographs, notes, and almost anything else imaginable.

Even if such private matters aren’t stored directly on the phone itself, they may be sitting in your email, also accessible by phone.  Then there’s cloud storage to consider, which many smart phone users employ as a way of sharing content between devices, or ensuring that if something happens to the device, they still have the data–which means the possibilities of what’s found during a cell phone search are nearly infinite.

Recognizing this, Judge Norman H. Stahl wrote:

“Today, many Americans store their most personal ‘papers’ and ‘effects’ in electronic format, on a cellphone, carried on the person.  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.”

With so much new technology, the Supreme Court will have to decide if a new approach is needed regarding the warrantless search of cell phones, or if cell phones will be protected under the Fourth Amendment.

The justices have agreed to hear a pair of cases that have the lower courts divided.

In one case, the federal appeals court in Boston threw out evidence police gathered from a drug dealer’s flip phone.

The second case examines the arrest of Derek L. Riley, in California.

Riley was pulled over for an expired auto registration.  Police discovered weapons in his car, and text messages that linked him with gang activity.  Upon a more thorough investigation of the phone, police found information linking Riley with a shooting.  He was charged and convicted of attempted murder, and sentenced to 15 years.

California’s state appeals court upheld the evidence obtained by the phone search.

Riley’s lawyers then took it to the Supreme Court, where they’ve petitioned the court that the phone is in essence a computer and that it is  “capable of storing a virtually limitless amount of information.”  His lawyers argue that because of this, police should be unable to search a phone without a warrant, because such a search is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights.

The decision that the Supreme Court hands down will be monumental–it will set precedent on whether or not police need a warrant to search a cell phone.

What do you think?  Should cell phones be protected under the Fourth Amendment?

Source:  The New York Times

April Dawn (@scarlettsinatra)