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SCOTUS to Rule on Warrantless Cell Phone Searches

January 21, 2014  | 

The Supreme Court said Friday it would rule on two cases that will determine whether police can search suspects' cell phones after they've been arrested, the Washington Post reports.

The twin rulings are likely to have broad implications for electronic privacy. Although a 1973 court case found that it was legal for law enforcement officers to perform a search of any containers on an arrestee's body — in order to determine whether the suspect was armed or carrying destructible evidence — the sheer amount of data carried on a mobile device these days makes it a potential source of valuable information to law enforcement agents.

On Aug. 22, 2009, David Riley was pulled over by San Diego police for driving with expired license plates. When officers inspected the vehicle, they discovered loaded firearms and put Riley under arrest. Officers then searched Riley's smartphone, learning of his connection with gangs and other gang members. That evidence, which included photos and videos from the phone, helped lead to Riley's conviction. The case is Riley v. California.

The second case in question, U.S. v. Wurie, involves the warrantless search of a simple flip phone and its call log. Brima Wurie, a Boston man, was arrested on suspicion of dealing drugs. When searched by police, Wurie turned up two phones. Officers used the call log from one of those phones to locate Wurie's home, search it, and find more drugs and a firearm — a discovery that resulted in additional charges.

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