The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a huge privacy case that will determine whether the cops can search the digital contents of your mobile phone without a warrant.
The case involves a San Diego college student (and alleged gang member) named David Riley, who was pulled over in 2009 for having expired tags. Police seized Riley’s Samsung Instinct M800 and used a photo on it to charge him with participating in a drive-by shooting. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life.
During arguments on Tuesday morning, Riley’s lawyer Jeffrey Fisher told the justices there are “very, very profound problems with searching a smartphone without a warrant.” He’s arguing for his client that such searches violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Technically, the police can search your person at the scene of a crime, as Justice Samuel Alito pointed out while asking this question of Fisher:
Suppose your client were an oldschool guy and he didn’t have he didn’t have a cell phone. He had a billfold and he had photos that were important to him in the billfold. He had that at the time of arrest. Do you dispute the proposition that the police could examine the photos in his billfold and use those as evidence against him?
Of course, Fisher didn’t dispute this proposition. However, he argued there’s a fundamental privacy difference between physical items and the huge amount of private, digital information stored on your mobile phone.
Fisher implied that allowing cops to access this information without a warrant is tantamount to giving “the police officers authority to search through the private papers and the drawers and bureaus and cabinets of somebody’s house.”
If the Supreme Court rules against his client, Fisher warned, it could open up “every American’s entire life to the police department, not just at the scene but later at the station house and downloaded into their computer forever.”
The Supreme Court will hand down its decision in the Riley case later this term. Interestingly, the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia may end up siding with Riley, as he’s been a champion of the Fourth Amendment lately, as the Los Angeles Times has reported.
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