updated 01:18 pm EDT, Wed April 30, 2014
Is a warrantless cellphone search a Fourth Amendment violation?
This iteration of the US Supreme Court gathering has not only heard the Aereo case, but also a pair of cases discussing the requirements of police officers searching suspects' phones. Two cases heard before the court this week -- one involving a flip phone, the other a smartphone -- were heard back-to-back on Tuesday, with the need for a warrant to search a person's phone being the centerpiece of both hearings.
The hearing centered around the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and requires warrants to be supported by probable cause. An example given by the court is a person detained for not wearing a seat belt. The question was asked if an officer has the right to rifle through the person not wearing the seat belt's cellphone to see if there is any incriminating evidence of any other illicit behavior on the device.
The Riley v. California case specifically asks if a police officer in the field is allowed to rummage through the digital contents of an arrested suspect in the field. Once again, the court was thrown into a morass of technical terms and service name-dropping, all to decide if California police had the right to search David Riley's phone, just because his cellphone had a picture of him standing next to a red Oldsmobile possibly involved in a drive-by shooting.
The Riley arrest started with a traffic stop, and subsequent detention from driving on a suspended license. A pair of warrantless searches of the cellphone ultimately led to ballistics tests on discovered weapons, which ultimately led to the individual's conviction for a drive-by shooting with no witnesses and little other evidence. An appeal failed, as California's state Supreme Court had already given its blessing to warrantless cellphone searches.
The rulings in the pair of cases is expected before the end of June. Precedent from the case rulings will form a de facto standard for the pastiche of federal and state rulings on the matter.