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Supreme Court to Consider Warrantless Arrestee Cellphone Searches

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a new question involving the intersection of technological change and the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures by police and government agents. The high court has just agreed to hear two cases in which officers arrested people and then, without warrants, seized their cellphones and rooted around in them for evidence. Should that seizure have been allowed, or did officers violate the defendants' Fourth Amendment rights?

One of the cases involved a state-level crime and the other a federal offense, but the court will consider both under the U.S. Constitution. The main difference, according to tech law observers, is that one case involved an old-fashioned flip phone containing minimal information, while the other involved a smartphone containing potentially many details of the user's life.

In the first case, a San Diego man had been pulled over for a traffic violation when his smartphone was seized. Although they had no warrant, the officers went through the contents of the phone twice. There, they found evidence purporting to show the defendant was a gang member -- and a picture of him at the site of a 2009 drive-by shooting the police had been investigating. Still without a warrant, the police traced back through his calls, finding more evidence allegedly pointing to the defendant as the drive-by shooter. No witnesses positively identified the defendant; he was apparently convicted in the shooting based solely on evidence found on his cellphone.

In the second, a man was arrested after allegedly being observed in a drug deal. Officers found crack cocaine in his car, along with two old-fashioned flip phones. Because he had the phones with him during a drug deal, the officers deemed the phones to be part of the drug sale. When one phone received calls from a number labeled "home," the officers examined the phones without a warrant and used that information to find his residence. A search of his home turned up a gun and ammunition. The man was convicted of drug distribution charges and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Should law enforcement feel free to grab and search the phone of anyone they arrest? Should it make a difference whether the cellphone is just a phone, or essentially a computer? The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in April.

Source: SCOTUSblog, "Court to rule on cellphone privacy," Lyle Denniston, Jan. 17, 2014