Can the police search and seize our cell phones without a warrant after an arrest?
In an age where ninety percent of Americans own a cell phone, the United States Supreme Court has taken steps towards granting Americans the privacy that many of them want and feel that they deserve when it comes to the content on their cell phones. The Supreme Court heard arguments in April on two cases that addressed the issue of whether or not police officers need a warrant to search the cell phones of the individuals whom they arrest.
The first case, Riley v. California, arose when David Riley was pulled over in San Diego for having an expired auto registration. The police found loaded guns in his car, and, upon an inspection of Mr. Riley's smart phone, entries they associated with a street gang. A more comprehensive search of Mr. Riley's phone found led to information that linked him to a shooting.
The second case, U.S. v. Wurie involved the search of the call log of Mr. Brima Wurie's flip phone after he was arrested in 2007 in Boston and charged with gun and drug crimes. This case made it to the Supreme Court after the federal appeals court in Boston threw out the evidence found on Mr. Wurie's phone.
The Justice Department, arguing on behalf of the United States and their police force, claimed that cell phones are not materially different from wallets, purses and address books. Chief Justice John Roberts and the rest of the Supreme Court disagreed. In an unanimous 9-0 opinion, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the police do need warrants to search the cell phones of the people that they arrest. Chief Justice Roberts went as far to say that "modern cell phones are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that a visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy."
Although this ruling will be considered a win by proponents of applying the Fourth Amendment (which bars unreasonable searches) to the content of cell phones, it is a huge blow to law enforcement agencies that would prefer more latitude to search without having to obtain a warrant (Chicago Tribune). The Chief Justice admitted that there is no denying that their ruling will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime; however, the right to privacy comes at a cost. What cost are you willing to pay?