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White House calls for warrantless searches of suspects' cellphones

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Obama administration urges Supreme Court to weigh in on controversial case

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supreme court

The Obama administration is urging the Supreme Court to allow for warrantless cellphone searches of arrested suspects, calling upon the court to resolve a nearly six-year-old case. In a petition filed last week, the White House disputed an appeals court ruling, which determined that police should be required to obtain a search warrant before accessing the contents of a suspect's phone.

The case in question stems from the 2007 arrest of a Massachusetts man suspected of selling crack cocaine. Upon his arrest, police took his cellphone and searched his call history without obtaining a warrant. That led them to his house, where they found drugs, money, and guns, and ultimately led to his conviction.

White House equates cellphones with address books

The suspect appealed the conviction on the grounds that the warrantless search of his cellphone violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the man, but the Obama administration is now asking the Supreme Court to override the decision, arguing that it does not align with previous rulings. Specifically, White House lawyers pointed to several appeals court rulings and earlier Supreme Court decisions which granted police the power to search any notebooks, pagers, or calendars found on a suspect at the time of arrest. Mobile phones, they argued, should be treated in the same way.

But as the Washington Post points out, the Massachusetts dispute may not make for a very strong test case, because the suspect in question was carrying a basic flip phone. It's safe to assume that the device didn't contain the vast personal information that more modern smartphones hold today, and that may raise concerns among civil libertarians and privacy advocates.