SCOTUS to take cases on police searches of mobile phones


The Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear two cases involving police searches of cellphones.

The cases are the latest of several in recent years that look into the reach of constitutional privacy protections in an age of advanced digital technology.

Under the Fourth Amendment, most police searches require a warrant to be granted, after establishing probable cause before a judge. Current Supreme Court precedent established in the 1969 case Chimel v. California, however, makes an exception allowing police officers to search anything carried by or in the immediate vicinity of a person subject to a valid arrest. 

Since that case was decided, devices like smartphones have been invented and allow a person to carry an enormous amount of personal information with them at all times. Privacy advocates argue that allowing police to fully search such devices after any arrest is an unconstitutional privacy violation.

The cases before the Court both involve police searches of cellphones following arrests and have reached different outcomes in lower courts. In the first case, U.S. v. Wurie, a police search of a man’s flip phone helped lead to a series of drug and firearm convictions, which were later overturned by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the second case, Riley v. California, police used videos, photos and text messages on David Riley’s smartphone to help convict him of weapons charges, a conviction California’s courts have upheld.

Riley and Wurie are not the first cases to touch on modern technology and the Fourth Amendment.

"In the 2012 case U.S. v. Jones, the Supreme Court ruled that attaching a GPS tracking device to a vehicle constituted a police search requiring a warrant. In 2001's Kyllo v. U.S., it ruled the same way regarding police use of a thermal imaging device to monitor a house from a public area."

The Court will hold oral arguments in April, with a ruling by the end of June.