Constitutional Law

Is warrant needed for cellphone search? Supreme Court ruling will have 'huge' impact, law prof says


The nation’s top court has long allowed individuals to be searched incident to arrest. But should that rule apply to cellphones, given the extraordinary amount of information they contain?

That is the question to be argued Tuesday before the U.S. Supreme Court, in a much-watched set of cases, reports the New York Times (reg. req.).

“The implications of these cases are huge,” law professor Orin S. Kerr of George Washington University tells the newspaper. Some 12 million individuals are arrested annually, often for minor offenses, and most Americans have cellphones, he notes.

The first case to be heard tomorrow concerns the 2009 arrest of David L. Riley, who was pulled over for having an expired registration in San Diego. Police found weapons in his vehicle and a search of his cellphone resulted in a link to a shooting and an attempted murder conviction. He is serving 15 years to life.

The state of California says in its briefing that the search was equivalent to going through his wallet or address book. It also cited the possibility that confederates could erase cellphone data, or that the electronic device could be used to set off a bomb, in support of this position.

A subsequent argument concerns the case of Brima Wurie, who was arrested in 2007 in Boston. A divided federal appeals court there threw out evidence that led to gun and drug charges, finding the warrantless search unconstitutional.

“Today, many Americans store their most personal ‘papers’ and ‘effects’ in electronic format on a cellphone, carried on the person,” wrote Judge Norman H. Stahl for the majority, quoting from the Fourth Amendment.

Media organizations including the Times are supporting the position that a warrant is required, arguing that warrantless searches interfere with news gathering.

The Associated Press, Fortune, SCOTUSblog and the Law & Disorder blog of Ars Technica also have stories.

Additional coverage:

ABA Journal: “Low-tech high court to weigh police search of smartphones”

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