Supreme Court Rules Cellphone Searches Unconstitutional in Unanimous Decision

On August 22, 2009, David Riley was pulled over by law enforcement after they had noticed that the license plate of the car he was driving was expired. The law enforcement officer then noted that Mr. Riley’s license was suspended and arrested Mr. Riley and impounded his car. During the documentation of the contents of the car when impounding, two firearms were found. During the arrest of Mr. Riley for concealed weapons, the police officer found and confiscated his smart phone from his pocket. On the smart phone were numerous references to a local gang, as well as photos of another car suspected in another crime. Using the information from the photo, police were able to track down two other men and charge them, along with Mr. Riley, for the other crime. Eventually, Mr. Riley was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

On September 5, 2007, during a surveillance drive, a police officer noticed suspicious activity similar to an illegal drug sale. The police officer, after confirming the drug sale, pulled over the driver of the car, Brima Wurie, and placed him under arrest for distribution of crack cocaine. He found two cell phones in Mr. Wurie’s possession. After the arrest, the officers noticed that one of the cell phones was receiving multiple calls from contact, “my house.” They opened the flip phone, pressed buttons to view the phone number for “my house,” and through a reverse search, found the address corresponding to the phone number. They then entered these premises, found more cocaine, a gun, and ammunition. Mr. Wurie was subsequently charged with intent to distributed cocaine, and the possession of a firearm and ammunition and was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 262 months in prison, or 21 years and 10 months.

On June 25 of this year, the Supreme Court released their decision concerning the search of cell phones in arrests. They weighed arguments from both of the cases above. In an unusual move, all 9 Supreme Court Justices voted that searches of cell phones without a warrant are unconstitutional. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, for all Justices except Justice Alito, who wrote his own opinion. Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “ Digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer…Officer may examine the phone’s physical aspects to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, but the data on the phone can endanger no one.” However, the Justices did allow for searches without a warrant in the case that “…a search of cell phone data might warn officers of an impending danger…” implying a possible terrorist attack by the arrestee’s “confederates.” Chief Justice Roberts also wrote that phones are “…a digital record of nearly every aspect of [a person’s] life.” Chief Justice Roberts ended his opinion with the acknowledgement that this ruling would make law enforcement more difficult, but reassures that data from cell phone may still be admissible in court, but a warrant is required first.

This ruling is a landmark case for digital privacy. The ruling for this case will almost without a doubt be extended to laptops, tablets, and other electronic devices found in searches of homes, businesses, and private citizens’ cars. This ruling starts a standard way for dealing with digital and electronic devices and for how these issues will be addressed in the future.

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