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Supreme Court Mulls Smartphone Privacy Questions

smartphone-privacyDo you think police should need a search warrant to go through the contents of your smartphone or other mobile devices? You’re not alone: a slew of mobile privacy activists have recently been fighting hard for legal smartphone protection against unreasonable search and seizure, so much that the United States Supreme Court is about to weigh in on the subject.

Contentious Court Cases

Currently, there are two different cases concerning mobile privacy that have been brought before the nine justices of the Supreme Court, one from California and one from Massachusetts. In both cases, the defendants in question were arrested and tried for crimes unrelated to their mobile devices.

The first case, which involved a California resident named David Riley, took place in San Diego during the August of 2009. Riley was initially convicted of three felonies related to discharging a weapon at an occupied vehicle. When he was arrested, police officers confiscated his smartphone and looked through its contents. One item they found was a photograph of Riley in front of a car that witnesses had placed at the crime scene on the day of the shooting.

The police would ultimately use that photograph in court to deliver a guilty verdict for Riley, but according to the defendant, it never should have been admissible as evidence because the police found it while conducting a warrantless search. Riley’s initial attempts to appeal the offense in California failed, leading him all the way to the Supreme Court.

An entirely different scenario played out in Massachusetts in 2007, when Brima Wurie was convicted of illegal drug and weapons possession after police found stocks of each at his Boston residence (as well as bulk amounts of cash, allegedly obtained through drug dealing). The cops tracked Wurie down using a phone number they found in his lost cellphone and he was arrested and charged. Wurie appealed the offense to a United States Circuit Court of Appeals based in Boston, presenting a case compelling enough that the judge threw out two of his three charges, stating that police should not have searched his phone without a warrant. The Federal Government disagreed with the ruling however, appealing the appeal, and bringing Wurie before the Supreme Court as well.

A Lightning Rod for Mobile Privacy Issues

Now, both Riley and Wurie are fighting their charges before the United States Supreme Court, and their cases have become symbolic of the broader fight for mobile privacy rights. Since so much personal information is now stored on or accessible through cellphones – from phone numbers to photographs and from social media access to text message and email history – many contend that police can actually find out more from looking through a suspect’s smartphone than from rifling through their vehicle or even searching their home. Since warrants are required before such searches can take place, mobile rights defenders insist that the same guidelines should apply to smartphones or other mobile devices.

The Defense for Warrantless Searches

In the eyes of the police officers, lawyers, judges, and politicians that have so far upheld the warrantless searches in the cases of Riley and Wurie, smartphones are no different from the other items that police are permitted to search without a warrant at the time of a suspect’s arrest. Generally, items in this category are small and are found on the suspect’s person, from wallets to address books to personal planners or calendars.

In the case of each, police are legally permitted to search the items and acquire evidence from without first obtaining a warrant. The justification for this is that any incriminating evidence contained in these small and conspicuous items could be discarded easily before police would actually have time to obtain a warrant.

With smartphones, where data can easily be deleted or password protected with just a few taps of the screen, this risk of lost evidence is very much alive. As a result, many are insisting that requiring warrants for mobile devices would cost police officers the opportunity to collect and secure potentially case-making evidence from those devices.

Questions of Liberty

Still, none of the justifications so far given for warrantless smartphone searches have addressed the questions of liberty and privacy that mobile activists have raised in support of Riley and Wurie’s appeal cases. After all, no wallet or planner in the world contains as much personal information as the average smartphone, and since police can learn everything from a suspect’s religion to their sexual orientation to their bank account information from a smartphone, allowing unregulated searches of such mobile devices seems like an easy way for discriminatory bias or abuse of power to enter into the law enforcement equation.

Ultimately, how the case will be seen will come down to a split in ideology between who is helped by the additional evidence obtained from smartphones (ostensibly, law enforcement officials, lawyers, and politicians) and who is hindered by the breach of privacy (private citizens and die-hard mobile users). Still, the issue seems more clear-cut than courts have thus far made it seem. After all, while a smartphone does have certain things in common with a wallet or other items that are protected under warrantless search policies (namely, they are both very portable and are therefore carried around on a suspect’s person), it has more in common with a desktop or laptop computer – both items which are fully protected under Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Supreme Court: The Last Word on the Subject?

Regardless of whether or not you think it is appropriate for police officers to obtain evidence from smartphones without a warrant, you should absolutely follow the Supreme Court cases involving Riley and Wurie. Rulings in both are expected to be handed down by the end of June, and both will undoubtedly have a massive effect on how law enforcement officers throughout the nation treat smartphones.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Riley and/or Wurie, it will open the floodgates for any other cases where evidence was unfairly obtained through a mobile device without a warrant. If the Supreme Court rules against Riley and Wurie, then expect warrantless phone searches to become the norm (and expect phone password protection systems to get a bit more of a workout, as well). Either way, if you follow the mobile industry or use smartphones or other mobile devices extensively, you will want to know the outcome.