The justices will hear two cases this week in an attempt to establish an interpretation of the 4th Amendment’s ban against unreasonable search and seizures in the digital age.
In order to protect evidence, law enforcement agencies have been granted permission from the courts to conduct warrantless searches once an arrest has been made. The Justice Department, however, argues that this old-school philosophy should be applied to modern technology, allowing police to search cell phones once a suspect has been detained.
Opposing forces maintain that unwarranted searches of digital devices must be handled carefully due to the amount of personal information that can be accessed. In fact, a recent decision from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that evidence obtained from a cell phone was inadmissible because “Searching a person’s cell phone is like searching his home desk, computer, bank vault and medicine cabinet all at once.”
In recent years, GPS and thermal imaging has been the subject of Supreme Court debates involving privacy issues. Yet legal experts say the topic of cell phone privacy is likely to be met with great understanding and care because all justices carry them.
In one case to be argued this week -- Riley v. California, No. 13-132 -- the prosecution used cell phone photos of a suspect engaged in “street boxing” and videos of him using “gang terminology” to link him to a gang-related shooting, which led to an attempted murder conviction and a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
The California Supreme Court ruling found that cell phone information “is not different in kind from wallets, address books, personal papers and other items that have long been subject to examination.”
In the second case -- United States v. Wurie, No. 13-212 -- Boston police used a suspects call log as well as photos to pin him on gun and drug charges in 2007. However, a federal court of appeals dismissed the cell phone evidence last year. “Today, many Americans store their most personal ‘papers’ and ‘effects’ in electronic format on a cell phone, carried on the person,” wrote Judge Norman H. Stahl.
Several briefs have been filed on behalf of the news media, including one by The New York Times that argues “Cell Phones Are Essential Tools of Self- Expression and Modern Journalism” and that unwarranted searches are a threat to the profession. An opposing brief filed by California officials states that cell phones must be searched immediately because they can be used to detonate explosives, as well as run applications “that would wipe a phone’s memory based on when the phone is carried into certain locations -- such as a police station.”
However, the nation’s highest court will hear arguments which concede that police can take precautions to protect evidence stored on cell phones while waiting on a search warrant, including putting seized phones in airplane mode, placing them in Faraday bags, or even wrapping them in aluminum foil.
Mike Adams writes for stoners and smut enthusiasts in HIGH TIMES, Playboy’s The Smoking Jacket and Hustler Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @adamssoup and on Facebook/mikeadams73.