Monday, April 28, 2014

Supreme Court to Hear Case about Warrantless Searches of Cellphones

Under traditional Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution juris prudence, law enforcement may conduct a search incident to arrest.  The basis behind this exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement is the need to protect police officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence.  The issue is particularly important in the digital age when a cellular telephone can contain the information equivalent of tens of thousands of pages of paper. 
 
The Fourth Amendment provides protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.  The issue before the Supreme Court is whether the warrantless search of such an extensive database makes a mockery of the protection in the digital age.
 
Lower courts have split on the issue of requiring a warrant for the search to cellphones.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals suppressed evidence obtained from a cellphone in the absence of a search warrant, characterizing the search as the equivalent of a home desk, computer, bank information, and medicine cabinet.  In a California case on appeal before the Court, police searched the defendant's cellphone twice without warrants.  The California courts determined that warrants were not necessary for either search.  In another case before the Court the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston overturned a federal conviction resting on evidence obtained through the search of a cellphone without a search warrant.
 
The Department of Justice takes the position that a cellphone is functionally no different than wallets, address books, personal papers and other items subject to searches incident to arrests.
 
The Court will hear oral argument on the cases during session on April 29, 2014.  Whatever the Court rules, it will have a significant impact on how law enforcement conducts investigations in the future.
 

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