Supreme Court: Taking on the 4th Amendment in the Digital Age

The Supreme Court will hear two cases this week regarding digital privacy and police searches of cellphones without warrants. At the center of the argument is a drug dealer, a gang member, and the rights granted in the 4th Amendment. The justices’ decision could have a dramatic effect on what police can do in the digital age.

The 4th Amendment protects people from unreasonable search and seizure, which generally requires a warrant for police to conduct a search. But, in the 1970s the Supreme Court laid out some exceptions to the rule, including looking for objects to prevent destruction of evidence. This basically allows anything in immediate control of a suspect to be fair game.

The two cases, Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie, will be argued Tuesday. California, and the Obama Administration, will argue that cellphones are no different than the other objects a person carries. The other side argues cellphones should deserve special treatment and require a warrant, based on probable cause, for police to search them.

In Riley v. California, San Diego police found images indicating gang membership and a gang shooting after stopping him for expired registration. Riley is currently serving a 15-year-sentence for attempted murder, but is challenging the evidence.

In U.S. v. Wurie, police in Massachusetts used a call log on his flip phone to find information about where he lived. Knowing the location of his house, police obtained a search warrant for his house and subsequently found drugs, guns, and cash. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed the search violated his 4th Amendment rights, but the government is appealing the decision.

The question presented in Riley v. California is, “Whether or under what circumstances the Fourth Amendment permits police officers to conduct a warrantless search of the digital contents of an individual’s cell phone seized from the person at the time of arrest.” U.S. v. Wurie questions, “Whether the Fourth Amendment permits the police, without obtaining a warrant, to review the call log of a cell phone found on a person who has been lawfully arrested.”

These cases come amid other challenges to the 4th Amendment, including the NSA’s warrantless searches of phone records.