The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide whether police can search an arrested criminal suspect's cell phone without a warrant in two cases that showcase how the courts are wrestling to keep up with rapid technological advances.
Taking up a pair of cases arising from criminal prosecutions that used evidence obtained without a warrant, the high court will wade into how to apply older court precedent - which allows police to search items carried by a defendant at the time of arrest - to cell phones. Many cell phones now contain a mass of personal information about the owner.
The legal question before the justices is whether a search for such information after a defendant is arrested violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans unreasonable searches. The outcome would determine whether prosecutors in such circumstances could submit evidence gleaned from cell phones in court.
Under court precedent, police are permitted to search at the time of an arrest without a warrant, primarily to ensure the defendant is not armed and to secure evidence that could otherwise be destroyed.
In the first case, from California, David Riley was convicted of three charges relating to an August 2009 incident in San Diego in which shots were fired at an occupied vehicle. Prosecutors tied him to the crime in part due to a photograph on his smartphone that showed him posing in front of a car similar to one seen at the crime scene.
In the other case, the federal government is appealing after an appeals court threw out two of three drugs and firearms counts on which Brima Wurie had been convicted by a jury in Massachusetts. The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a May ruling that officers could not search Wurie's phone without a warrant after the September 2007 arrest for suspected drug dealing.
The court will hear oral arguments in April and issue rulings by the end of June.
The cases are Riley v. California, 13-132 and U.S. v. Wurie, 13-212.