On Tuesday at 10amET, the Supreme Court will hear two cases involving a Boston crack dealer and an LA gang-banger that will determine when police need a search warrant to go through a suspect’s cellphone — and to obtain the rich trove of numbers, photos and other evidence a phone can contain.
The facts in the cases sound like an episode of the The Wire, but the legal outcome will have big implications for the future of the Fourth Amendment and personal privacy. Here’s a brief Q&A plus links below to full background coverage.
Who are the suspects and why are they at the Supreme Court?
David Riley is a member of the Bloods gang who was sentenced to 15 years for his ties to a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. Brima Wurie was sentenced to 22 years for crack-dealing and weapons offenses in Boston, but his conviction was overturned.
Juries convicted both men on the basis of cell phone evidence. Lower courts are divided, however, about when cell phone evidence obtained during an arrest should be admissible, and are looking to the Supreme Court for guidance.
What type of phones did the suspects carry and what did the police find on them?
Riley had a Samsung Instinct M800 smartphone where police discovered incriminating photos and videos. Wurie had an old-school “flip phone” on which the police found numbers and a call-log that tied him to the crime.
Why didn’t the police get a warrant to search the phones?
The police don’t need a warrant to perform some types of searches. At the time of an arrest, for instance, cops can search a person’s pockets and their unlocked nearby items like a wallet or a briefcase. But it’s not clear if a phone is in the same category.
The search without a warrant is typically justified because: 1) the cops need to make sure the suspect doesn’t have a weapon; 2) the cops want to ensure sure the suspect doesn’t destroy the evidence. (Some judges also think gathering evidence related to a crime is a third justification.)
Why is the case so important?
The case will define how the Fourth Amendment’s rules on “unreasonable searches and seizures,” which were written in the age of log cabins, apply to smartphones. As one court put it, searching someone’s cellphone is like searching their “home desk, computer, bank vault and medicine cabinet all at once.”
What does each side want?
The federal and many state governments, supported by law enforcement agencies, say that cell phones provide crucial information about crimes and that police need to access them immediately. They say that the Supreme Court should recognize that a phone is just like any other container that a cop can normally search — and that is important that police access it before the suspect or someone else “wipes” its contents.
Riley and Wurie are supported by civil liberties group, law professors, media outlets and defense lawyers. They argue that phones often contain every detail of a person’s life and that the Supreme Court should require a warrant. To prevent evidence loss, they suggest police should just remove the battery or use a “Faraday bag,” which the Cato Institute points out “are available for about the same price as a set of handcuffs.”
What will the Supreme Court decide?
Court watchers are not sure about the outcome, especially as cell phone technology continues to evolve so rapidly. Some suggest the judges may try to issue a narrow ruling by saying a flip phone search is okay, but a complete smartphone search is not. This would likely lead to more cellphone search cases in the next few years.
How long will the case take and when is the decision?
The court will hear the California case at 10am ET and the Boston case an hour later. The transcripts from the argument will likely appear in the afternoon, and the decision will come in the early summer.
Where can I learn more?
Argument preview: police and cell phone privacy (SCOTUS Blog’s rundown of all legal issues, including the Justice Department perspective)
Supreme Court Taking Up Police Searches of Data Troves Known as Cellphones (New York Times’ Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak)
Choosing between ‘never search’ and ‘sometimes search’ in the cell phone search cases (Law professor Orin Kerr’s on how the court can draw a line)
Cell phone as smoking gun: In court, few messages are gone for good (Our look at the evidence hidden deep on mobile devices)
Court takes on cellphone privacy for arrestees: In Plain English (SCOTUS Blog’s more basic explainer)
Supreme Court to rule on warrantless searches of electronic devices (Ars Technica preview includes many of the facts of the cases)
Is Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” legally accurate? (A great intro to the Fourth Amendment courtesy of the famous rapper)