Groups tell court to set limits on phone searches

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Librarians and civil rights advocates are both urging the Supreme Court to set limits on warrantless searches of people’s cellphones.

In two separate friend-of-the-court briefs filed this week, different groups told the high court that the constitutional right to privacy was at stake.

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“Technology now makes it possible for individuals to carry huge quantities of information with them every day. Permitting warrantless searches of digitally-stored information will allow police to rummage through vast quantities of individuals’ personal information — precisely what the Framers of the Fourth Amendment sought to prevent,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote in their brief. 

The high court is set to hear cases from two people whose cellphones were searched by police without a warrant. Pictures, texts and phone numbers obtained in the searches were later used as evidence against them.

Police are traditionally allowed to searches that are “incident to an arrest” in order to preserve evidence and ensure that the suspect is not carrying a weapon, for instance.

The groups say that searching the content of a cellphone goes beyond that standard.

Allowing searches of a suspect’s cellphone would be akin to going into their home and searching their office, wrote the American Library Association and the Internet Archive.

“Smartphones are personal computers in every sense of the word,” the two groups wrote, “if every arrest of a person with a smartphone — a population including more than half the adults in the United States — allows police officers to rummage painstakingly and intrusively through the contents of personal libraries, the loss of constitutionally protected privacy will be great indeed.”

State and federal appeals courts have issued mixed rulings on the cases, setting the stage for the high court to weigh in.

The cases are David Leon Riley v. State of California and United States v. Brima Wurie. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 29.