Warrantless police search of cell-phone content
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases of significant Fourth Amendment rights. The Court will hear Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie, both cases dealing with the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Both cases deal with the suspects’ cell phones’ content, accessed without a search warrant after the suspects’ arrests. In both cases, the police confiscated the cell phones as part of an "inventory” search after arrest. In each case, a search of the cell phone content occurred, as part of the "inventory” search, revealing incriminating evidence.
In the Riley case, the suspect was pulled over for a traffic stop and the police impounded his car when they learned he was driving with a suspended license (here in New York that is a misdemeanor) and then conducted the inventory search of the car. The inventory search is common and any incriminating evidence can be used in other criminal matters or to bring other charges. The police found weapons in the car, which they arrested him for, and that is when his smartphone was confiscated. On the smartphone the police discovered evidence, without a search warrant, of Mr. Riley’s involvement in a shooting, which he was eventually convicted for.
In the Wurie case, the police arrested the suspect after a drug deal and his flip phone was confiscated. The police saw multiple calls from one location noted as "my house.” At that point, the police searched the phone without a warrant, obtained the actual telephone number for "my house,” performed a reverse directory search for the address associated with the telephone number of "my house” and secured a search warrant for the address. Needless to say several hundred grams of crack cocaine were found at the home.
Here is what the Supreme Court is going to consider. An inventory search is allowed and Constitutional. However, is the content stored in a cell phone protected by the Fourth Amendment, requiring the police to obtain a search warrant prior to digging into the digital information contained within the cellphone.
My position is that the cellphone does not pose an immediate threat of harm or potential destruction of evidence by the suspect, while in the custody of the police. Therefore, the police should be required to present to a judge compelling arguments for a search warrant, prior to going through the cellphones digital content, that evidence of a crime is stored on the device.