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The US Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments on Tuesday morning in two companion cases revolving around whether police officers need a warrant to search a suspect’s cell phone upon arrest: United States v. Wurie involves an old-fashioned flip-phone, while Riley v. California centers on a modern smartphone.
The specific issue before the court in Riley is currently the more interesting debate. Does an arrest alone allow a police officer to search the vast troves of data available on a person’s smartphone? In David Riley’s case, his phone held a potentially incriminating photo: Riley was standing next to a red Oldsmobile allegedly involved in a prior shooting, but the car was not directly connected to the reason for Riley’s current arrest.
So during two spirited hours today, justices and counsel alike name-dropped a host of technologies and digital platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Fitbits, GPS, airplane mode, Faraday bags, encryption, online dating apps, and several others in an effort to craft what amounts to an appropriate search and seizure rule for the digital age. And while justices appeared all too willing to try to strut their technological proficiency—some more successfully than others—the task at hand was to determine whether warrantless searches of cell phones and other devices in a suspect’s proximity “incident to arrest” are acceptable under the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which forbids “unreasonable” searches and seizures.
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