Weighing The Risks Of Warrantless Phone Searches During Arrests : All Tech Considered Police have long been able to search people without a warrant at the time of their arrest. Two cases before the Supreme Court ask whether cellphones should be off-limits until police get permission.

Weighing The Risks Of Warrantless Phone Searches During Arrests

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Consider for a moment what's inside that mobile phone you're holding: photos, text messages, your call history - lots of information about you, and potentially a big help to the police, if they ever arrest you and they want to collect evidence. Over 90 percent of American adults today own cellphones, and today the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases testing whether police can search cellphones when they arrest someone, before getting a warrant. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches was adopted by the Founding Founders in reaction to the use by the British of something called a general warrant. There was not requirement to show that a particular crime had been committed, no focus on a particular place, not limit to the search. As lawyer Andrew Pincus explains...

ANDREW PINCUS: The government could just rummage through everything that belonged to an individual, and that's what the founders were trying to prevent with the Fourth Amendment.

TOTENBERG: The Supreme Court has interpreted that amendment to require that police get a warrant from a neutral judge upon a showing that there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. The warrant specifies where the search will be conducted and the evidence being sought. There are, however, exceptions to the warrant requirement. Since the nation's founding, the courts have allowed police to search people at the time of their arrest, without a warrant. But as privacy advocate Pincus points out, those searchers, until very recently, were self-limiting, meaning that they were limited by the amount of information a person could carry on himself. Now, however, because of cellphones and digital information storage, a person can carry more than any one of the Founding Fathers had amassed in a lifetime.

PINCUS: The Library of Congress' entire collection of James Madison's papers is 72,000 pages. He couldn't have carried them. They would have weighed 675 pounds. Today's cellphones can carry 100 times that amount of paper.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, the iPhone 5, the nation's most popular smartphone, in its smallest storage version, keeps 800 million words of text, enough to fill over a football field's length of books, or over 8,000 photos, 260,000 private voicemails, and hundreds of home videos. In fact, as Professor Orin Kerr, an expert on technology and the law, puts it...

ORIN KERR: It's misleading to even think of them as phones. They're general purpose computers that have a bunch of apps. One of the app is the telephone functionality.

TOTENBERG: Just as there is a mass of private information on smartphones, though, there's also a mass of information about criminal activity, which is why police at all levels want to preserve the warrantless search at the time of arrest. Law enforcement advocate John Bursch.

JOHN BURSCH: And it's not at all uncommon now for drug rings, prostitution rings, child-trafficking rings and other things to contain emails, texts, pictures, all kinds of other important information on the phone that are not only important to solving the crime in the long run and making sure that the bad guys are convicted, but might be necessary to protect someone right now.

TOTENBERG: The two cases before the Supreme Court today offer an illustration of both the potential advantages and breadth of warrantless cellphone searches. One case involves a traffic stop in San Diego. Officer Charles Dunnigan saw David Riley driving a Lexus with expired tags. After pulling Riley over, the officer checked and found the driver's license was suspended. Following standard procedure, the car was brought in for impoundment and inventoried, whereupon police found two guns under the hood, and arrested Riley. During the arrest, they took his Samsung smartphone from his pocket and conducted a two-stage search.

First, Officer Dunnigan scrolled through the text entries and saw abbreviations that he thought indicated gang activities. Two hours later, a detective specializing in gang investigations went through the phone's digital files - containing photos, videos, contacts - and downloaded, quote, "a lot of stuff."

Based on some of that information and ballistics from the guns, police linked Riley to a gang shooting three weeks earlier in which nobody was injured. They charged him with several serious felonies, including shooting at an occupied vehicle, a crime normally punishable by up to seven years in prison. But because he was charged with a gang-related offense, that sentence was enhanced to a mandatory term of 15 years to life.

The second case before the court today goes back seven years to a Boston arrest and a flip phone with far less information. Still, police pushed two buttons and got information that would lead them to drug and gun evidence used to win a conviction. In both cases, the defendants contend that the information obtained from their phones without a warrant should not have been used against them at trial because it was obtained in violation of the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches.

They note that the long-established ruled allowing warrantless searches incident to arrest was aimed at finding weapons that might be a threat to an officer's safety and to prevent evidence from being destroyed. But they maintain that the warrantless search of a cellphone is more like the general warrant the British used against the colonists to rummage through their papers.

Privacy advocates contend that police can secure a cellphone while they seek a warrant. The phone, they say, can be protected by putting it in an inexpensive special bag that insulates it from outside radio waves.

BURSCH: The bag and any the other tricks are far from foolproof. In fact, they're kind of riddled with holes, like Swiss cheese.

TOTENBERG: Law enforcement advocate John Bursch.

BURSCH: Criminal rings have gotten pretty sophisticated about this. One of the examples that we talk about in the law enforcement brief is about a massive drug operation in Orange County, California.

TOTENBERG: Bursch says was that the warrant to search cellphones seized in a raid was almost foiled when all but one phone was wiped clean by remote control. Experts say they know of few such examples, but they do expect that with or without warrants, there will, in the future, be something of an arms race between cops and criminals, and between securing and erasing incriminating information. For the Supreme Court, however, the question is whether to stick with the rules allowing warrantless searches at the time of arrest, or whether to adapt those rules to the modern digital era and the ubiquitous smartphone. Law enforcement has one view. As John Bursch puts it...

BURSCH: You're only going to be in this position if you're arrested for a crime.

TOTENBERG: But civil libertarians on the left and right reply that 12 million people are arrested each year, and the majority are never convicted of any crime. Moreover, while some of these arrests arise from felony investigations, the vast majority are for alleged misdemeanors, such as driving under the influence or shoplifting cheap items. Professor Kerr concedes that police and prosecutors don't want to search every cellphone in every case. But because they want that power in some cases, they want a rule that allows it in all cases.

KERR: Of course, whether you accept that or not hinges on whether you trust the government to actually only conduct the search when it actually would be appropriate.

TOTENBERG: A decision in the cellphone cases is expected by summer. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

GREENE: At NPR News, we really are determined to stay with stories as long as it takes to understand them, to hear all the voices and perspectives. You just heard Nina preview the arguments at the Supreme Court over police searches of cellphones. You'll hear her reporting on the arguments after they happen later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. But first things first: There's much more ahead on MORNING EDITION, so stick with us.

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