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Cops should have to get a warrant before searching smartphones
September 9, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
Should the police have to get a warrant before they search your cellphone after you've been arrested? The U.S. Supreme Court may be about that question, according to Alison Frankel of Reuters.
Back in 2009, a San Diego gang member named David Riley was convicted of a drive-by shooting based largely on evidence police obtained when they searched Riley's smartphone. Riley's lawyers argued unsuccessfully that the search was illegal under the Fourth Amendment; the California Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal. Riley's lawyers are petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the question. The Supreme Court is also being asked to consider a similar case out of Boston, Wurie v. U.S. In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that police did violate the Fourth Amendment when they searched Brima Wurie's cellphone in 2007. Wurie was suspected of selling two bags of crack cocaine and was eventually convicted in federal court on drug charges. The Appeals Court ruled in May that the search of his phone was illegal.
From a personal standpoint, I won't lose much sleep if a violent gang member and a drug dealer spend long stints beyond bars. But from a civil rights standpoint, I'd rather let the gang member and the drug dealer both go free before I'd give away one iota of my own liberty. Privacy is probably all but impossible in this day and age, given the snooping that the National Security Agency has reportedly been doing, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to slow law enforcement down a bit.
Police most definitely should have to prove probable cause and get a warrant before they search someone's smartphone or iPad or any other electronic device on which people carry personal photos and messages and contact information for their friends and family members. That is the standard that is required for a search of someone's home or personal vehicle, as well. If a patrol officer stops you for speeding, he doesn't have a right to open up your trunk and rifle through your things without your express permission or reasonable suspicion that something back there is suspicious. If a police officer comes to your door, you don't have to let him in the house without a search warrant. The same rules should apply to the electronic devices that contain so much of our personal information.
I hope the Supreme Court will take one or both these cases and provide law enforcement with some guidelines for using the Fourth Amendment in the 21st century.
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