Search Warrants, Smartphones and the Constitution

Smartphones are becoming increasingly sophisticated and function essentially as handheld computers. In fact, advances in mobile technology have enabled devices like iPhones to store as much or more information than desktop computers from just a decade ago. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the cases of two men convicted of crimes due to evidence found on their smartphones. This evidence used against them was obtained without search warrants. The court heard arguments from both sides last month to decide if those searches were constitutional or not, and as a result, the fate of the two men currently in prison. A decision is expected next month.

Hand held devices and the 4th Amendment

These cases boil down to whether or not the law enforcement needs to obtain search warrants before obtaining evidence from the suspects’ smartphones. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states,
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Law enforcement and criminal defendants are constantly in court exploring the meaning and boundaries of this Amendment. This is just the latest chapter in a very long book.

Police have long been allowed to search people without a warrant when making an arrest. In the past, a person could only carry so much information on their person. Smartphones have radically changed that, potentially opening the door to a range of communications, connections, phone numbers, photos, videos, documents, internet searches and text messages.

One of the cases involves David Riley, who in 2009 was pulled over for driving with expired tags in San Diego. His car was impounded, inventoried and guns were discovered under the hood. An initial search of his smartphone indicated he might be involved in gang activity. Two hours later, a gang investigator went through the phone’s digital files and downloaded contacts, videos and photos, some of which were used to convict Riley of several felonies.

Searches of small smartphones and the big picture,

Riley’s attorney, Jeffrey Fisher, according to NPR, told the justices the major concern of warrantless searches of smartphones is that the information from them could be downloaded and kept in “ever-growing databases.” He said if there’s a warrant, a neutral magistrate reviews the application and can limit the search, as well as the retention of the downloaded information, if it’s not used to prosecute a crime.