High court takes cases on cellphone searches

By By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether police need a warrant to search the cellphones of people

they have arrested.

The court will hear two cases in which criminal defendants were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms at least in

part on the strength of evidence obtained by warrantless searches of their cellphones.

The high court ruled 40 years ago that

police don't need a search warrant to look through anything a person is

carrying when

arrested. But lower federal and state courts have differed over

whether that decision, predating the digital age, should apply

to increasingly sophisticated cellphones, including even more

advanced smartphones.

The cases will be argued in April and decided by late June.

More than 90 percent of Americans own at least one cellphone, the Pew Research Center says, and the majority of those are

smartphones — essentially increasingly powerful computers that are also telephones.

The two cases the court agreed to review present several aspects of the issue.

In one, from Boston, a federal appeals court

said the warrantless, but limited, search of an older flip phone

violated the

Fourth Amendment. After arresting Brima Wurie on suspicion of

selling crack cocaine, police eventually examined the call log

on his flip phone and used the information to determine where he

lived. When they searched Wurie's home, armed with a warrant,

they found crack, marijuana, a gun and ammunition. The evidence

was enough to produce a conviction and a prison term of more

than 20 years.

In the other case, from California, state

courts upheld the search of defendant David Leon Riley's Samsung

smartphone. San

Diego police found several indications that Riley belonged to a

gang and was involved in a gang-related shooting. Prosecutors

used video and photographs found on the smartphone to persuade a

jury to convict Riley of attempted murder and other charges.

Smartphones also have the ability to connect

to the Internet. In this case, though, there is no indication police

used the

device to access other personal information of Riley's. The high

court made clear it will review the case only to the extent

that information obtained in the search was used at Riley's trial.

Under the Fourth Amendment, police generally need a warrant before they can conduct a search. The warrant itself must be based

on "probable cause," evidence that a crime has been committed, the Constitution says.

But in the early 1970s, the Supreme Court

carved out exceptions for officers dealing with people they have

arrested. The court

was trying to set clear rules that allowed police to look for

concealed weapons and prevent the destruction of evidence. Briefcases,

wallets, purses and crumpled cigarette packs all are fair game if

they are being carried by a suspect or within the person's

immediate control.

Car searches pose a somewhat different

issue, and in 2009, in the case of a suspect who had been handcuffed and

placed in

the back seat of a police cruiser, the court said police may

search a car only if the arrestee "is within reaching distance

of the passenger compartment" or they believe the car contains

evidence relevant to the crime for which the person had been


The cases are Riley v. California, 13-132, and U.S. v. Wurie, 13-212.