Skip to main content
Advertising

Originally published April 26, 2014 at 5:16 PM | Page modified April 30, 2014 at 11:02 AM

  • Share:
           
  • Comments (0)
  • Print

Smartphone privacy at stake in Supreme Court case

In an unplugged courtroom, Supreme Court justices must fit data-packed smartphones into the contours of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.


McClatchy Washington Bureau

Jeffrey Fisher, law professor at Stanford

Reader Comments
Hide / Show comments
What's so difficult about obtaining a search warrant for a smartphone? MORE
It would be nice to have a custom lock screen that lets you specify a special password, which would not only unlock the... MORE
@blackhawk73 Sounds like it's time for a new app. :)) MORE

advertising

WASHINGTON — The Founding Fathers will meet the selfie generation this week when the Supreme Court dials up the case of a California man incriminated by his smartphone.

Loaded with pictures, some of them imprudent, David Leon Riley’s Samsung Instinct was searched by police in 2009 without a warrant. He got busted. Now the justices, who sometimes seem uncomfortable with new technologies, will consider a quintessentially 21st-century problem.

In an unplugged courtroom Tuesday, where television cameras and electronic devices have long been banned, justices must fit data-packed smartphones into the contours of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The eventual outcome will clarify rules written long before phones wised up.

“A modern smartphone,” Stanford Law School professor Jeffrey Fisher noted in a brief, “is a portal into our most sensitive and confidential affairs. The digital contents of such a device should not be subject to a fishing expedition.”

Fisher is representing Riley, the San Diego man whose case will be heard along with a separate flip-phone-search challenge filed by a Boston-area native named Brima Wurie. The cases pose potentially far-reaching consequences for police and phone users alike.

Privacy advocates fear that a ruling against Riley and Wurie would render vulnerable the secrets of the 90 percent of U.S. adults who own cellphones, a growing number of which are outfitted like the various iPhone, Samsung or Android models.

Law-enforcement officials fear they might lose a valuable investigative tool.

“A photograph, short video, letter, list of addresses or other material that could be properly seized from an arrestee’s pocket in paper form is not imbued with special First and Fourth Amendment protection simply because it is digitized and carried on a cellphone,” the California Attorney General’s Office wrote in a brief.

California Solicitor General Edward Dumont, whom President Obama once nominated to the federal bench, will join with Obama’s Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben in urging the court to give law enforcement leeway in searching smartphones.

Two scenarios

The Riley and Wurie cases present different scenarios, and they’ll be argued back to back for an hour each Tuesday morning. Both rest on the warrantless searches of devices unimagined at the time the Fourth Amendment was ratified in 1791.

“I think the Riley case, in particular, is incredibly important,” Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, said Friday, “and it should be important for everyone who has a smartphone.”

Riley was pulled over by a San Diego police officer on Aug. 22, 2009, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree, but they characterize him differently. Fisher called Riley a “college student.” California officials called him “a member of a San Diego Blood gang.”

Police impounded Riley’s Lexus over his driving with a suspended license, and in a subsequent search found two guns. A police officer then scrolled through Riley’s unlocked phone, finding video clips of gang initiation fights, pictures of gang signs and clips of a red Oldsmobile allegedly used in an earlier gang shooting.

Riley, convicted on charges that included attempted murder, was sentenced to prison for 15 years to life. The 23-year-old is imprisoned at California’s Kern Valley State Prison.

In Wurie’s case, Boston police lacked a warrant when they checked the call log on his gray Verizon LG phone after busting him on drug and gun charges. Wurie was convicted in 2009 and is serving a 262-month prison term at a federal facility in New Hampshire.

The Riley case may prove the most consequential because it deals directly with the multimedia capacity of modern smartphones. An estimated 56 percent of U.S. adults were using smartphones last year, according to one survey.

“You’re talking about a treasure trove of personal information,” Wydra said, “the kind of information that we think of as deeply private.”

Amicus briefs

The attorneys general of 14 states, including Idaho, South Carolina and Mississippi, have weighed in on California’s behalf. Many more amicus briefs have been filed in support of the other side, by groups that range from the American Civil Liberties Union to the American Library Association.

“What Americans are reading is normally none of the government’s business,” the librarians said. “This case threatens that principle because it allows police officers to peer into the contents of a person’s entire personal library using a device that happens to be found on that person.”

The nine justices won’t be starting from scratch.

In a 1973 decision that involved the discovery of heroin inside a crumpled cigarette pack, the Supreme Court upheld the authority of police to thoroughly search someone who has been arrested. There are limits, though. The searches are supposed to be for weapons or relevant evidence.

Moreover, in a 1969 decision involving the warrantless search of the house of a Santa Ana, Calif., man, the justices cautioned that police cannot “rummage at will among his papers in search of whatever will convict him.”

One possibility, among many, is the court might allow more lenient searches of phone-call numbers in the Wurie case while imposing tighter restrictions on broader content searches in the Riley case. Justice Antonin Scalia, in particular, might prove a key swing vote among conservatives.



Want unlimited access to seattletimes.com? Subscribe now!

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon


Advertising
The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited seattletimes.com access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►