Should the police be able to search your phone without a warrant?

police able search phone without warrant supreme court

Two cases in the Supreme Court may determine whether the police can search your phone without a warrant. The cases, which will go before the high court on Tuesday, may determine privacy issues about police searches of data stored on cell phones, an issue that has yet to come before the justices. 

“The case provides the Court with a chance to expound on the scope of searches incident to arrests, an exception to the general Fourth Amendment rule that searches require a warrant or the presence of probable cause.  The Court has been divided in the past over the permissible scope of searches incident to arrests. The case also provides the Justices with the chance to wrestle with technology issues; although no longer new technology, the Justices have not faced legal questions about the nature of data stored on cell phones,” the court said in a blog post.

The two cases in question are Riley vs. California, which resulted in an attempted murder conviction, and United States vs. Wurie, a drug conviction that was thrown out by an appeals court in 2007.

Riley vs. California

In Riley vs. California, David Leon Riley was convicted to 15 years in prison for attempted murder, shooting at an occupied vehicle, and assault with a semiautomatic weapon. An appeals court in the state later upheld his conviction. 

He was first arrested in 2009 for driving a car with expired registration. During the arrest, police seized weapons linked to a gang-related incident and Riley’s Samsung smartphone. The court in California ruled that the warrantless search of his phone was legal because it was “immediately associated” with him. The judge added that the phone evidence would have been questionable had it been found later. The device contained photos that linked him to a gang. Phone records also placed Riley at a location near the shooting when it happened.

United States vs. Wurie

The other case, United States vs Wurie, had a different result. Brima Wurie was arrested in 2007 on suspicion of dealing crack cocaine. During the arrest, police confiscated Wurie’s two flip phones. The contents of the phone led police to a South Boston home that contained marijuana, crack cocaine, a gun, and ammunition. The court rejected a motion to suppress evidence that resulted from the search and Wurie was convicted to spend nearly 22 years in prison.

Later an appeals court, on a vote of two to one, overturned the verdict, ruling that the police should not have performed a warrantless search. The court said that such a seizure can only be legal if there was a need to protect the safety of the officers and the evidence itself. The panel also questioned why the police went directly to searching the phone. The court said that the police could have protected the data on the phone from tampering by creating a mirror version of its contents.

Is it right or wrong?

The biggest concern when it comes to warrantless searches is how easy it is to delete and alter phone data. Also, with smartphones becoming complex enough that they are basically mobile computers, there is a lot of data at stake, such as emails, phone numbers, photographs, and online purchases, which can be crucial for solving crimes. The cases will determine where a person’s rights to digital privacy ends and law enforcement’s perusing starts.

Smart Home

Cops go after porch pirates with dummy Amazon boxes and GPS trackers

Amazon is helping police in Jersey City to catch thieves who steal delivered packages from outside people's homes. Within just minutes of the operation's launch this week, cops nabbed their first porch pirate.
Mobile

The Galaxy S10 may be announced before MWC, sell for up to $1,750

While we still may be months away from an announcement, there's no doubt about it: Samsung is working hard on its successor to the Galaxy S9. Here's everything we know about the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10.
Movies & TV

The best Amazon Original series, from 'Bosch' to 'Transparent'

Amazon Studios may not have as big a collection of in-house productions as Netflix, but there are still lots of shows worthy of your eyeballs. Here are our picks for the best Amazon original series.
Business

Chinese court upholds Qualcomm's complaint that Apple infringed on two patents

Apple is following the FTC's lead and has sued Qualcomm for a massive $1 billion in the U.S., $145 million in China, and also in the U.K., claiming the company charged onerous royalties for its patented tech.
Mobile

Apple is spending $1 billion to hire up to 15,000 new employees in Austin

Apple has announced a series of expansions across the U.S. -- including a massive expansion to the company's Austin campus that will see it spending $1 billion to accommodate for up to 15,000 new employees.
Outdoors

Google Maps makes it easier than ever to find a Lime bike or scooter

Google Maps has added a new feature that helps you find a Lime bike or scooter in just a few taps. The feature currently works in 11 U.S. cities served by Lime, with more coming next year.
Mobile

Leave the laptop at home, the iPad Pro is the travel buddy to take on vacay

The iPad Pro is a powerful tablet that's perfect for creatives and professionals. How does it fare when traveling with it as a laptop replacement? We took it on a two week trek in Japan to find out.
Mobile

Quirky smartphone accessories you never knew you needed

Looking for a few accoutrements to make your smartphone even better? If you, or someone you know, is a sucker for accessories, you'll want to check out our collection of quirky smartphone accessories you never knew you needed.
Mobile

Ditch your smartphone for a year and win $100k from Vitaminwater

Vitaminwater is willing to part with $100,000 if you're willing to part with your smartphone partner for a year. Could you last for a year armed with only a 1996-era phone? Here's your chance to find out.
Music

Here's our head-to-head comparison of Pandora and Spotify

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Deals

Walmart drops prices on Apple Watches and other fitness trackers

Smartwatches, fitness trackers, and wearable heart rate monitors from Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, and Garmin are popular gifts. Wearables are smarter and more capable than in earlier years. We found the best wearables deals on Walmart.
Wearables

The best Wear OS watches

There are a ton of different Wear OS watches out there, but which one's right for you? No matter what you're looking for from a smartwatch, here are the best Wear OS watches out there.
Emerging Tech

Capture app saves money by 3D scanning objects using iPhone’s TrueDepth camera

Capture is a new iPhone app created by the Y Combinator-backed startup Standard Cyborg. It allows anyone to perform 3D scans of objects and share them with buddies. Here's how it works.
Home Theater

How to master your equalizer settings for the perfect sound

You may know what an EQ is, but do you know how to adjust equalizer settings for the best possible sound? We go through the basics of the modern EQ and lay out some guidelines for how to achieve tip-top sound from your system.