Summary:

The law about when cops can search your phone is a cluster of confusion. But now the issue is teed up for the Supreme Court to define the privacy rights surrounding the personal computers in our pockets.

In the United States, cops can poke around your pockets and briefcase during an arrest but they can’t start searching other parts of your property without a warrant. But what about the contents of your cell phone? Is that just like a pocket search or do cops need special permission to search it?

Judges across the country can’t agree on the answer and now the Obama Administration is weighing in. In a brief filed last week, the White House urged the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of a drug case in Massachusetts where cops obtained a call log from a flip phone without a warrant.

Meanwhile, an alleged gang member from California is also asking the Court to overturn his shooting conviction because evidence in the case came via a warrantless search of his Samsung Instinct smartphone.

The two appeals, conflicting case law and the Obama Administration’s involvement mean the Supreme Court is “highly likely” to address the question this fall, according to Scotusblog, a top legal blog. This means that the Court will probably provide definite rules in 2014 about the Fourth Amendment and what cops can do with smartphones.

At a larger level, a Supreme Court hearing would also provide a new occasion to define the scope of civil liberties and privacy in the age of the smartphone. The issue matters because, as some judges have noted, our phones now contain not just call logs but intimate details of our lives; we are carrying powerful computers in our pockets and, for now, the rules are unclear about who can go through them.

We’ll be watching this issue in the future but, in the meantime, Forbes has a nifty map via the Electronic Frontier Foundation that gives a state-by-state view of where cops can and can’t search your phone.

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