The Supreme Court has today decided to rule on whether or not the warrantless search of cellphones is legal under the constitution. It's eventual decision will outline how law enforcement can and cannot make use of seized phones as evidence — a digital rights issue that neither states nor circuits courts can agree upon.
A digital rights issue that divides states and courts
The Court will review two cases on the subject of warrantless search, and each case differs crucially on whether the Fourth Amendment permits police to search phones. The first, United States v. Wurie, concerns the arrest of Brima Wurie after a suspected drug deal in 2007. South Boston cops confiscated Wurie's phone after a drug deal, and, after rifling through his call logs, were able to locate a massive cache of crack cocaine, marijuana, and weapons at one of Wurie's residences. However, the First US Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the evidence, maintaining that search as part of an arrest does not authorize the search of data on a suspect's cell phone. The Obama administration is currently appealing the verdict, arguing that a warrant should not be necessary.
The second case, Riley v. California, concerns suspected gang member David Leon Riley and his involvement in the shooting of a rival gang member in August 2009. In addition to ballistics analysis that linked Riley to the drive-by shooting, law enforcement leaned heavily on evidence gathered from Riley's phone that suggested he was a involved in the San Diego's Lincoln Park Gang. Riley was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Organizations like the EFF have called for the practice to be struck down
Supreme Court's decision will serve as a mandate for circuit courts and states that are currently divided on the issue. Presently, the Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh US Circuit Courts, along with the supreme courts of Georgia, California, and Massachusetts, allow for cellphone search without a warrant. The practice has been ruled illegal by the First Circuit and the supreme courts of Florida and Ohio. Meanwhile, organizations like the EFF and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have released statements calling for a ruling that strikes down the practice, especially with regard to Riley v California. According to the EPIC website, "EPIC has an interest in ensuring that the vast amount of personal data contained in individuals' cellphones is not searched and stored by the government without prior judicial authorization and oversight."
CNN reports that the Supreme Court is expected to deliver a decision as early as April, though a far-reaching ruling could be made in June.