The Fourth Amendment, also known as the Search and Seizure Amendment, has been a part of the nation’s Bill Of Rights since the late 1700s. It prevents unreasonable searches and seizures by requiring law enforcement to obtain warrants whenever they believe they have probable cause for searches.
Warrants are required for most searches, but there are exceptions to the rule. Law enforcement officers are allowed to conduct warrantless searches for consent searches, car searches, noticeable evidence, emergency circumstances and other cases.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard two cases that dealt with warrantless cell phone searches, one that happened in California, the other in Boston. Both present questions of whether it is unreasonable to conduct an unwarranted cell phone search.
The first case, Riley v. California, is an incident that happened in 2009, where David L. Riley was pulled over with expired tags in San Diego. Seemingly a harmless offense, but when police found guns under the hood of the car hours later they initiated a search, which included Riley’s mobile phone. Contacts, videos and photos were all downloaded during the search and later used to convict Riley with felony charges.
In U.S. v. Wurie, Brima Wurie was apprehended for allegedly selling illegal drugs at a convenience store. Wurie’s flip phone kept ringing at the police station from a caller labeled as “my house.” Police conducted an unwarranted search and used the information to find out Wurie’s residence where police would find contraband, and use to charge Wurie of further crimes.
The court debated a number of ideas that would help reach a middle ground between police officers and citizens. While some debate warrantless searches are needed to protect the police officer (i.e. the suspect is armed with a weapon) and to prevent destruction of evidence, others argue that the privacy rights of citizens also holds value.
“[T]he core privacy rights to U.S. citizens under the Constitution affects all consumers,” said Appellate Advocacy Counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Alan Butler. “They affect our ability to interact and use these technologies. If we have fewer legal protections for the data that we carry with us every day then that impacts our ability to use that data as we see fit.”
Among the suggestions, one was to make a distinction between serious and non-serious offenses, but others wanted a broader rule that could apply to all crimes. Things such as diaries, letters, pictures have all been part of warrantless searches in the past, and proponents of warrantless cell phone searches argue that cellphones are no different.
“[I]f you accept the notion that officers can at the time of arrest search a cell phone for anything they believe could result in discovering evidence of the crime at the time of arrest, then really they’re going to be able to search anything in the cell phone because cell phones contain so much data,” said Butler. “…So far I don’t think that the middle ground rules that have been proposed by the government really create a workable solution.”
According to Pew Research Center’s statistics, over 90 percent of the American population owns a cell phone of which the majority are smartphones. Moreover, FBI reports more than 12 million arrests for the 2012 year. The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision in mid-June. Whether the court decides in favor of warrantless cell phone searches or not, it is evident that citizen and privacy advocacy organizations think law enforcement should have some boundaries on this issue.
“The court has long said that warrantless searches are per se unreasonable. The whole purpose of the Fourth Amendment was to limit the use of warrantless searches, especially because law enforcement that has the power to search through people’s private files and papers is outside the scope of our constitutional system,” said Butler. “It is by definition one of the things that led to the Revolution and founding of our country…I don’t think that we should just trust law enforcement blindly to do well with warrantless [cell phone] searches. We have a Fourth Amendment for a reason and it’s an important principle in this country.”