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Your Smartphone Is Your Life. Should Police Be Able to Search It?

The U.S. Supreme Court has just agreed to hear two cases about whether law enforcement should be allowed, without a warrant, to seize and go through the cellphones of anyone they arrest. In one case, the cellphone was an old-fashioned type with minimal functionality beyond talking, texting and taking photos. The other case involved a smartphone -- the kind that's essentially a mini-computer containing virtually every detail of the user's life. Law enforcement was easily able to pull crucial evidence from each type of phone, so should the distinction matter?

The defendants argue that the officers' searches of the phones violated their rights under the Fourth Amendment, which reads in part, "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated."

In the case involving the smartphone, the defendant was pulled over for a traffic violation and arrested. It wasn't until officers dug into his smartphone that they allegedly found evidence the man was a gang member, that he might be involved in attempts to murder rival gang members, and that he had once been photographed at the location of a drive-by shooting they were investigating. Further investigation apparently found no major evidence, and the man was convicted of the drive-by shooting charges based on what police found on his phone.

Although the old-fashioned flip phone in the second case didn't contain a great deal of personal data, police were still easily able to use it to turn up evidence they wouldn't have found otherwise. After noticing the phone had number labeled "home," the officers used a reverse phone-number search to learn where he lived. A search of his residence turned up a weapon and ammunition. He had a prior record, so he was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm.

How comfortable are you with law enforcement seizing and rooting through your cellphone if you should be arrested -- even for a traffic violation? Over the course of U.S. history, unfortunately, the courts have been increasingly willing to define reasonable searches and seizures in ways that don't seem to have much to do with citizens' comfort level. Furthermore, with the fast pace of technological change, courts often apply old standards to situations with new meanings.

Oral arguments in these two cases are expected in April; final rulings sometime this fall.

Source: SCOTUSblog, "Court to rule on cellphone privacy," Lyle Denniston, Jan. 17, 2014

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