Mobile Phones Protected by Fourth Amendment

Mobile Phones

For over 40 years police officers have had the right to search anything on a suspected criminal’s person before or after their arrest, including their mobile phones. The original reasoning behind it was a matter of safety for the arresting officer. Without a pat down or a search of their car, the officer could not be certain that he or she was not in danger of assault with a deadly weapon. Now that over 90 percent of the American population has a cell phone constantly within reach, officers were happy to look through them for evidence of any other crimes. The number of criminals prosecuted due to cell phone searches are unknown, but one would imagine it is quite copious, considering the amount of data that goes through the millions of cell phones in American purses and pockets. However, today the supreme court ruled that citizens are protected by the fourth amendment when it comes to searching their mobile phones.

If the original reasoning behind searching a person’s immediate surroundings and belongings upon arrest was to protect the arresting officer, why then were they able to search cell phones? In short, search cell phones makes their jobs easier. There was no law expressly forbidding it, so the search was simply to find anymore evidence that could be linked to any sort crime. By that logic, the Miranda Rights should have read. Anything one has ever said or done can be used against them in a court of law.

As the justices pointed out, mobile phones are more than just a tool by which calls are made, they hold a vast amount of personal information on most american citizens, and the fourth amendment should protect them the same way it protects their homes. Searching the average citizen’s phone, would be akin to walking into their home, without asking, rifling through their diary or private computer data, and then wire tapping their phone. Anyone of those things would require a warrant, yet the cell phone was immune to the same treatment.

There were two cases which attracted the attention of the supreme court. The first took place seven years ago in Boston. Burma Wurie was arrested in 2007 for selling two packets of crack cocaine from his car, in view of a police officer. The officer found two mobile phones on his person at the time of arrest, one presumably was a “burner,” a disposable phone on which one conducts their illegal business then replaces it with another. The mobile phone of consequence, however, was an older flip phone. Once at the station, officers went through his phone to find a contact label home, then used their online phone directory to find the actual location of his apartment, because he gave a false address at the time of arrest. After getting a warrant police searched his house to find, a gun, ammunition, cash, drug paraphernalia, marijuana and 215 grams of crack cocaine. He was eventually charged with distribution of a class schedule II drug (crack cocaine), possession with intent to sell, and possession of a firearm. These items led to his conviction of a felony, for a total sentence of almost 22 years in prison.

The next case took place two years later, when David Riley was pulled over for driving with an expired registration. During the routine stop the officer found that Riley was also driving with an expired license, so he was arrested and his car impounded. During the arrest the his smartphone was searched by the arresting officer, after finding gang related objects on his person. The initial search only uncovered a few instances where contacts or messages ended with “CK,” a blood abbreviation for Crip Killer. After reaching the impound lot, police searched his car to find two loaded weapons under the hood. The smartphone was handed over to a gang specialist at the station. He uncovered a video with Riley sparring while “Blood” is clearly heard in the background as encouragement. The mobile phone also contained a picture of Riley next to a car that was associated with a drive by shooting. Ultimately Riley was charged with possession of two loaded concealed firearms, assault with a semiautomatic weapon, attempted murder and firing at an occupied vehicle, which were all enhanced by the gang affiliation.  The resulting charges led to a sentence of 15 years to life.

The ruling by the supreme court to ban the search of cell phones was unanimous. All nine justices voted that cell phones and other electronic devices are inherently different from other devices that would be on a citizen’s person, one of the reasons being that it poses no threat to the arresting officer. There may be new extenuating circumstances enacted to help ensure evidence is not destroyed, and agencies are going to use whatever technology is at their disposal to preserve evidence, but for the most part officers’ hands will be tied without a warrant. The fourth amendment guarantees that unlawful searches and seizures are avoided by use of warrants, now mobile phones will fall under the same protection.

By Eddie Mejia

New York Times
Supreme Court

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