Nation & World

January 17, 2014

Supreme Court to hear 'smartphone' and cell phone search cases

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a challenge to a police search of a suspect's cell phone, in what could prove to be a seminal case of the iPhone era.

A long-awaited case for the iPhone era will now come to the Supreme Court, as justices on Friday said they would hear a challenge to a police search of a California man's cell phone.

In the case called Riley v. California, justices will wrestle with whether the search of the digital contents of a cell phone amounted a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

In a separate case, called United States v. Wurie, involves a less-cutting flip phone and a police search of the call log.

The smartphone in question, owned by a Mr. David L. Riley, was a Samsung Instinct M800 “smartphone.” After law enforcement officials pulled Riley over in San Diego in 2009, they scrolled through the phone's contents, including photos and videos.

Investigators "found a photo of (Riley) with another person posing in front of a red Oldsmobile that the police suspected had been involved in a prior shooting," Stanford Law School Professor Jeffrey L. Fisher wrote in a petition filed for Riley.

Prosecutors subsequently charged Riley with two others with shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder, and assault with a semiautomatic firearm. He was convicted in a second trial, after failing to suppress evidence taken from his phone.

"Federal courts of appeals and state courts of last resort are openly and intractably divided over whether the Fourth Amendment permits the police to search the digital contents of an arrestee’s cell phone incident to arrest," Fisher wrote. "This issue is manifestly significant."

Past court decisions have allowed investigators to search, without a warrant, such things as a cigarette pack found on a suspect. But, as Fisher noted, cell phones are capable of "storing a virtually limitless amount of information in a single, compact device" including "exponentially larger quantities of personal information."

Three appellate circuit courts have, nonetheless, upheld warrantless searches of cell phones, while other courts have reached different conclusions. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a warrantless search of a cell phone taken from a suspect before he was placed in a police car; the phone included incriminating photos.

The California Legislature passed a 2011 law requiring police to obtain a search warrant before searching the contends of any portable electronic device, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who said the issue needs judicial resolution.

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