The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will hear two cases that involve the ability of law enforcement officials to search arrestees’ phones without a warrant, an issue that has divided multiple lower courts around the country.
The first of the two cases is Riley v. California, initially a state-level case involving whether or not evidence gathered from an arrestee’s phone without a warrant could be used against him in trial.
Police arrested Riley in 2009 for attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon after he shot at an occupied vehicle. He was later arrested and police searched the phone in his possession at the time, turning up evidence that identified him as a gang member out to kill members of a rival gang.
The phone also contained a photo of him with a car that had been spotted at the scene of the shooting. This, along with other evidence gathered from the phone was used against Riley in his trial, where he was convicted and sentence to 15 years behind bars. His lawyers contend that the warrantless search of his phone violated his Constitutional rights and this evidence should not have been used in trial.
The second case, United States v. Wurie, involves the 2007 arrest of a South Boston man for allegedly dealing drugs out of his car. After he was taken into custody, officers found two phones on his person. While police observed, one phone received several calls from Wurie, who they believed to be this dealer’s drug connection. The police reviewed the call log of his phone and tracked Wurie to his home. Wurie was ultimately convicted on drug distribution charges and sentenced to 262 months (21 years, 10 months) in jail. He appealed his conviction on the grounds that the phone search violated the Constitution, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.
While the Wurie case involves the search of a simple flip phone, the Riley case involves the search of a smartphone. Numerous lower courts have held that a warrantless police search of an unprotected, unlocked flip phone is no different that skimming through a handwritten address book found on an arrestee. Smartphones present a more complicated issue to the courts, as they are effectively small computers that contain significantly more sensitive information than a traditional wireless phone.
The Supremes are expected to hear both cases at some point in April.