The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause….
So are smart phones packed with telephone numbers, addresses, photos, texts, videos, and Internet Search logs analogous of papers and effects? On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear appeals from two cases—Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie—in which police seized and searched cell phones and used evidence found on them to convict their owners of crimes.
In California, David Leon Riley was convicted of shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder, and assault based on circumstantial evidence in his phone that suggested that he was a gang member. The appeals courts in California upheld his conviction. In Massachusetts, police searched the numbers stored in Brima Wurie's phone to find his house address where they then proceeded to conduct a search that uncovered a stash of illegal drugs and gun. The appeals court in this case overturned Wurie's conviction and decided that the police must obtain a warrant before searching a cell phone.
The courts have generally ruled that police may search people whom they have arrested with the general goals of making sure that the arrestees do not have weapons that could harm the police and protecting evidence from destruction. The lawyers in the Riley case argue in their Supreme Court petition argue:
Contrary to the California Supreme Court's view, the Fourth Amendment forbids police officers from searching cell phones incident to arrest for two reasons. First, once a cell phone is securely in police control, neither of the reasons identified in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), [i.e., weapons or destructible evidence] for conducting searches incident to arrest justifies searching the phone's digital contents. Second, the profound privacy concerns attendant to cell phones make it unreasonable for police officers to search digital content without a warrant.
The Obama Administration's Department of Justice has filed a brief arguing that the police do not need a warrant to search the contents of a cell phone. The amicus brief for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology points out:
Smartphone technology has thus produced an incredible change in the quantity and type of information that individuals routinely have in their immediate possession. Previously, no individual could carry, either on his or her person or in a container, even a small fraction of the information contained in today's smartphones. In physical form—paper documents, photographs, etc. — the information would be too bulky and too heavy to carry. Because of those physical limitations, more over, no individual could routinely carry all of his or her personal financial or medical information.
Today, it is no exaggeration to state that an individual can, and often does, carry at all times the extremely personal information that formerly would have been stored in the individual's residence.
Given that we now carry our most private papers and effects on us at all times, the Supreme Court should clearly recognize that Fourth Amendment protections apply to the seizure and search of our cell phones.