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Lawyers ask US Supreme Court to limit mobile phone searches

Grant Gross | April 30, 2014
Police shouldn't be able to search suspects' mobile phones at the time of arrest because of the huge amounts of private information now stored on those devices, lawyers for two criminal defendants argued before U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday.

Judith Mizner, a federal public defender for Wurie, suggested the encryption and password concerns were overblown. She questioned how many times police arrest a suspect holding an unlocked mobile phone. In her client's case, police searched his flip phone after he was taken to a station, she noted.

When Fisher and Mizner argued that police shouldn't be able to search mobile phones without a warrant unless there are so-called "exigent circumstances" such as immediate injury, some justices questioned how police could decide what amounts to an exigent circumstance. They also called on the court to allow only limited searches of phones through warrants, instead of allowing police to "rummage" through phones, as Mizner phrased it.

Chief Justice John Roberts questioned how a judge could determine what information on a phone was fair game. "What part of a smartphone is not likely to have potential evidence?" he asked.

The two cases have significant differences.

In the Riley case, San Diego police pulled him over for driving with expired tags. During a search of the car, police found two guns under the car's hood and they found a smartphone in Riley's pocket. Officers at the scene found what they believed to be evidence of gang affiliation on Riley's smartphone, then, in a later search of the phone, found pictures of Riley making gang hand signals and pictures of a car they believed to be involved in an earlier gang shooting.

The picture of the car, along with ballistic tests connecting Riley to the earlier shooting, led police to charge him in the shooting. Riley's lawyers tried to get the smartphone evidence thrown out, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. A California court rejected that effort, and Riley was convinced on three charges, including shooting at an occupied vehicle.

In the second case, police observed what they suspected to be a drug deal and arrested suspect Wurie after he drove away from the scene. After Wurie arrived at the police station, police found a call log on his flip phone and traced a number designated as "my house." After connecting that number to a street address, police obtained a warrant, searched the house and found crack cocaine, marijuana, a gun and ammunition.

Wurie's lawyers filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained through the warrantless search of his mobile phone, and a judge denied the motion. After Wurie was convicted on three counts, including intent to distribute and distributing cocaine base, the defendant appealed the case, and an appeals court threw out the conviction.

 

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