Advancing technology may eventually lead to a new legal framework regarding police searches of cell phone data. As of now, police contend that a cell phone should be treated like a wallet, meaning they can search the item without a warrant following an arrest. Others feel that cell phones should be treated more like a computer with expansive, personal and intangible data. In today’s world, cell phones contain a vast amount of information. Most of that information is personal and private to the person using the device. For instance, home security applications have the ability to allow users to view their home security cameras from anywhere they have a connection. This could mean that anyone, at the touch of a button, could see your home and its surroundings. For those who have something to hide, viewing the cameras may result in some type of incriminating evidence to be revealed.
Cases and Oral Arguments
Riley v California
Riley is a known gang member who was found to have been involved in a shooting. Following the shooting of a rival gang member, Riley and others fled the scene. Several days later, Riley was stopped and searched by police. During the search, police located two guns used in the shooting. Police confirmed that those were the exact weapons used through ballistics testing. As a result of the stop and search, Riley was arrested. Police also seized his cell phone.
Following an investigation of the records, police found that Riley’s cell phone had been used near the location of the shooting around the time of the shooting, and was used about a half-hour later near where police found the getaway vehicle used in the shooting. The cell phone also contained photos of Riley making gang signs. Riley’s criminal defense attorney was unsuccessful in arguing that the evidence used to prosecute his client was obtained via an invasive and illegal search.
United States v Wurie
Wurie was arrested for distribution of crack cocaine in 2007. Prior to being booked at the police station, officers noticed that one of Wurie’s cell phones kept ringing. The incoming calls were from a number that was stored as “my house” in Wurie’s phone. Officers opened Wurie’s phone to view his call log. Upon opening the phone, they saw a photo that was saved as Wurie’s wallpaper. It was a picture of a woman holding a baby.
One of the officers proceeded to research the phone number labeled as “my house” and found an address that was near where Wurie was arrested. The officers suspected Wurie of being a drug dealer and that he may be hiding drugs at his residence. The officers went to the address associated with the “my house” phone number. Upon arriving at the apartment, officers witnessed a woman through the window who resembled the woman pictured on Wurie’s cell phone wallpaper. Then, officers obtained a warrant which resulted in the seizure of 215 grams of crack cocaine, four bags of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a firearm with ammunition and $250 cash. Wurie was convicted and sentenced to over 20 years in prison.
In this case, an appeals court vacated the lower court’s decision, stating that the officers were not justified in looking through Wurie’s cell phone. One Judge wrote that cell phone searches may become “a convenient way for the police to obtain information related to a defendant’s crime of arrest – or other, as yet undiscovered crimes – without having to secure a warrant.”
One similarity in the above cases is that they both involved the seizure and use of cell phone evidence in an arrest. The cases were contentious enough to reach the Supreme Court due to the rapidly advancing technology related to cell phones. The decisions on the cases are expected early this summer.
The issue at hand surrounds how much weight technological changes are given when interpreting the Fourth Amendment’s proscription of unreasonable searches. In the US Constitution, the Fourth Amendment protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” and provides that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Following the Court’s ruling, it is very possible that there will still be gray areas and unanswered questions surrounding the search of cell phone data following an arrest. However, the pending decision from the oral arguments held in the cases mentioned above should shine some light on the issue.
The Mace Firm has criminal defense lawyers licensed in South Carolina and Florida that are experienced in federal court. Our criminal defense attorneys are dedicated to their clients and make it a personal goal to provide their clients with the best defense possible. We believe that is exactly what our clients deserve. We keep our clients fully informed through every stage of the process. If you need to speak with a criminal defense attorney, contact The Mace Firm for a free consultation at 1-800-94TRIAL.