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Supreme Court's turn: tribunal to rule on cellphone cases

In recently urging the United States Supreme Court to hear a case on appeal, a leading government lawyer noted the longstanding practice of warrantless searches conducted by police officers pursuant to the arrest of a suspect.

Courts across the country have long allowed officers to search the personal effects of arrested persons, noted United States Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. in oral arguments before the nation’s highest court. Verrilli pointed to wallets, diaries, pagers, address books and other personal items as all being customarily searchable to prevent destruction of evidence, to uncover weapons and for other legitimate purposes.

Verrilli’s statements to the court were pursuant to his plea that the tribunal hear a case on appeal involving the warrantless search of a suspect’s cellphone. The court agreed to do so, and will additionally rule on a tandem cellphone-related case.

The central question in both cases will focus squarely on whether a cellphone is intrinsically different from the types of personal items described above. That is, is it a more personal and private repository of information that should be deemed constitutionally protected and unsearchable by law enforcement officials in the absence of a search warrant?

Criminal defense attorneys will strongly argue a cellphone exception on appeal. A lawyer in one of the cases states that a smartphone is essentially a computer “capable of storing a virtually limitless amount of information.” Given that much, if not all, of that data is highly personal, the attorney says that police should be required to secure a warrant before being allowed “to rummage through the digital contents of such a device.”

As the New York Times has noted, lower courts across the country have differed in their opinions on cellphones and warrantless searches. One federal appellate judge says that, “Only the Supreme Court can finally resolve these issues.”

Now it appears as though the court will do so. We will keep readers informed.

Source: The New York Times, "Supreme Court will consider whether police need warrants to search cellphones," Adam Liptak, Jan. 17, 2014

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