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Supreme Court to decide 4th Amendment question on warrantless cell phone searches

The United States Supreme Court is scheduled to issue landmark decisions early this summer regarding the constitutionality of a warrantless search of a suspect’s cell phone under the Fourth Amendment. The nation’s highest court has recently announced that it will be hearing arguments and deciding on two criminal cases – one from Boston, Massachusetts, and the other from California – that touch on the issue of warrantless searches of mobile devices. Arguments are scheduled for April, and the court is set to issue its decisions in June.

One of the cases to be examined by the court is U.S. v. Brima Wurie, which was litigated here in the U.S. District Court in Boston, MA. In the matter of Wurie, police officers arrested Wurie after allegedly observing him sell two bags of crack cocaine out of his car. When the officers were booking Wurie, they seized more than one thousands dollars cash, keys, and two cell phones, all of which were found in Wurie’s pockets. One of the cell phones – a flip phone – was repeatedly receiving calls from a number labeled “my house.” The officers opened the phone and checked the call log for the phone number making the calls to Wurie, and copied the number from the phone. The officers did not access either cell phone again.

Instead, the officers entered the phone number corresponding with the “my house” label into an online directory and discovered a street address associated with the number. Wurie denied living at that address. The officers then obtained a search warrant and went to the address on the assumption that Wurie had lied to them in order to protect a stash of cocaine at the home. When they executed the warrant, the officers discovered more crack cocaine, marijuana, cash, a firearm, and ammo inside the house. Wurie was charged with three federal offenses – possessing a firearm and ammo, possessing cocaine with intent to distribute, and distributing cocaine.

Wurie moved to suppress the evidence seized at the residence, arguing that the seized evidence was fruit of an unconstitutional search of his cell phone’s phone log. The federal prosecutors responded that the search of the cell phone log was constitutional under the doctrine of search incident to arrest established in U.S. v. Robinson. The federal prosecutors also argued the phone search was very limited in that the officers only pressed two buttons and did not access any files on the phone. The judge allowed the evidence and the jury convicted the defendant, but the First Circuit vacated the convictions, holding “the search-incident-to-arrest exception does not authorize the warrantless search of data on a cell phone seized from an arrestee’s person.” The U.S. prosecutors now appeal.

The second case, Riley v. California, involved officers searching the smartphone of Riley after he was arrested for driving an unregistered vehicle. While searching the smartphone, CA police officers discovered texts, videos, and other data connecting Riley to heavy gang activity and an attempted murder, as well as an assault with a semi-automatic. Riley was convicted on all counts by a state trial court, and is now appealing to the Supreme Court.

With so many Americans carrying mobile devices on their persons, courts have examined the constitutionality of warrantless searches of cell phones over and over again. But because the last Supreme Court decision on this issue predated the use of mobile devices in the public, the lower courts have not had much guidance in deciding this question on Fourth Amendment grounds. And particularly with smartphones becoming increasingly popular, there is growing concern that officers searching individuals will have access to not only call logs and videos/pictures, but also emails, financial accounts, and personal files. As the law in this area develops, it becomes more important for individuals charged with criminal offenses to be represented by an experienced defense attorney who will see that their constitutional rights to privacy are protected.

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