Police uncovered Brima Wurie's drug dealing during a routine arrest in Boston six years ago, thanks to the frequent calls from "my house" arriving on his flip-top cellphone.
David Riley's participation in a San Diego gang shooting in 2009 was revealed after police stopped his Lexus for having expired tags, found weapons and located incriminating photos and video on his smartphone.
Cellphones -- owned by more than nine in 10 American adults -- are at the center of a growing legal debate over privacy rights and technology, one that's likely headed to the Supreme Court in the coming months.
As the Wurie and Riley cases illustrate, your cellphone and the intimate information inside can be used against you. At issue is whether police can search mobile devices upon arrest without getting a warrant -- and whether the data inside, from e-mail to the Internet, are fair game.
For the court, it's the latest in a string of Fourth Amendment search and seizure cases involving society's innovations -- from the automobile to the current alphabet soup of DNA, GPS and mobile apps.
"Every generation has its new technologies that raise novel Fourth Amendment questions," says Orin Kerr, an expert on computer crime law at George Washington University Law School. "Technology changes the facts."
The facts about what police can do when making an arrest have been relatively clear for 40 years: They can search the person being arrested and what's within reach, with an eye toward finding weapons or evidence that could be destroyed.
"It is settled law that a custodial arrest based on probable cause justifies a full search of an arrestee and any items found on him -- including items such as wallets, calendars, address books, pagers and pocket diaries," the Obama administration argues in its petition asking the court to hear United States v. Wurie.
Cellphones and, increasingly, smartphones that mimic computers have clouded those facts. At least six federal or state appellate courts have ruled that they are fair game; at least three others have said search warrants are required.
In the past few weeks, the Supreme Court has been asked to hear both the California and Massachusetts cases, which could help restore clarity in Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure law. The justices probably will decide this fall whether to hear one or both, and a decision is possible next spring. (continued...)
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