The Technology and Privacy Debate Continues: Court to Rule on Cellphone Searches After Arrests


Should police be able to automatically search the contents of someone's cellphone after they've been arrested? That's what the Supreme Court recently agreed to rule on. A state case, Riley v. California, and a federal case, United States v. Wurie, both concern different aspects of cellphone privacy. The Supreme Court has accepted both cases for review and will hear arguments starting April 21 when the Court's April sitting commences.

One of the major questions in cases such as this is "how much authority should police have?" Law enforcement has the right to conduct searches and investigations after obtaining search warrants based on probable cause, but pending a Supreme Court decision, police may be allowed to take and search a person's cellphone after an arrest only.

Riley v. California is a case in which a San Diego man was convicted for shooting at a vehicle with passengers inside. He was also found guilty of his other charges: attempted murder and assault with a semi-automatic weapon. The defendant in this case was not immediately arrested after committing the alleged crimes, but some time later after police pulled him over for driving with expired license plates. Police arrested Riley after this traffic stop and searched the contents of his phone without a warrant.

Just what did police learn from searching Riley's cellphone? Police say that they discovered data tying him to a gang whose goal was to kill rival gang members. A jury found that Riley was guilty of all three charges based solely on evidence obtained via cellphone data. If officers had not searched the contents of his cellphone, there likely wouldn't have been enough evidence for a conviction.

In United States v. Wurie, a police officer witnessed what he believed to be a drug deal. After confronting the man who he thought purchased drugs, he found two bags of crack cocaine. The buyer was also able to partially ID his seller. Not long after the sale, police arrested Wurie (the Defendant). Once at the police station, officers confiscated two cellphones and proceeded to search through them. Wurie was convicted on all charges based on evidence taken from his cellphones. He appealed and two of his charges were dropped.

Without evidence from the cellphones in both of these cases, the defendants likely would not have been convicted due to a lack of evidence. Does searching the contents of a cellphone after an arrest with no search warrant violate an individual's Fourth Amendment rights? We'll hear from the Supreme Court in April.