* Cell phones contain a mass of personal data about owner
* U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches
* Arguments set for April, ruling expected by end of June
(Adds context, details about cases, paragraphs 5-21)
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, Jan 17 The U.S. Supreme Court agreed
on Friday to decide whether police can search an arrested
criminal suspect's cell phone without a warrant in two cases
that showcase how the courts are wrestling to keep up with rapid
Taking up cases from California and Massachusetts arising
from criminal prosecutions that used evidence obtained without a
warrant, the high court will wade into how to apply older court
precedent, which allows police to search items carried by a
defendant at the time of arrest, to cell phones.
Cell phones have evolved from devices used exclusively to
make calls into gadgets that now contain a bounty of personal
information about the owner.
The legal question before the justices is whether a search
for such information after a defendant is arrested violates the
Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans
unreasonable searches. The outcome would determine whether
prosecutors in such circumstances could submit evidence gleaned
from cell phones in court.
Digital rights activists have sounded the alarm about the
amount of personal data the government can now easily access,
not just in the criminal context, but also in relation to
national security surveillance programs.
President Barack Obama on Friday announced plans to rein in
the vast collection of Americans' phone data in a series of
limited reforms prompted by disclosures by former National
Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about the sweep of
U.S. eavesdropping activities.
Stanford Law School professor Jeffrey Fisher, who represents
one of the defendants, said in court papers that it was
important for the high court to decide the issue.
"In light of the frequency with which people are arrested
with cell phones and the judiciary's confusion over whether the
police may search the digital contents of those phones, this
court's intervention is critical," Fisher said.
According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, 91
percent of adult Americans have a cell phone, more than a half
of which are smartphones that can connect to the Internet and
contain personal data from social media websites and other
Under court precedent, police are permitted to search at the
time of an arrest without a warrant, primarily to ensure the
defendant is not armed and to secure evidence that could
otherwise be destroyed. In the past, it has applied to such
items as wallets, calendars, address books and diaries.
In the case involving Fisher's client, David Riley was
convicted of three charges relating to an August 2009 incident
in San Diego in which shots were fired at an occupied vehicle.
Prosecutors linked him to the crime in part due to a
photograph on his smartphone that showed him posing in front of
a car similar to one seen at the crime scene. The photograph was
shown to the jury at trial, as were videos that showed Riley
making gang-related comments.
Police searched the phone after pulling over Riley's car for
having expired tags 20 days after the shooting. Riley sought the
high court's review after his convictions were upheld by a state
appeals court in California.
In the other case, the federal government appealed after an
appeals court threw out two of three drugs and firearms counts
on which Brima Wurie had been convicted by a jury in
The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a
May 2013 ruling that police could not search Wurie's phone
without a warrant after the September 2007 arrest for suspected
One major difference between the cases is that Wurie's
phone, unlike Riley's, is not a smartphone. Officers used the
phone only to search the phone log. They were able to find a
phone number that took them to Wurie's house in Boston, where
drugs, a gun and cash were found.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil rights
group based in San Francisco, urged the court to hear the case
in a friend-of-the-court brief.
"I think it's another opportunity for the court to decide
how changes in technology implicate the Fourth Amendment," one
of the group's lawyers, Hanni Fakhoury, said in an interview.
Fakhoury, a former federal public defender, said that
searches of cell phones upon arrest are routine in the vast
majority of jurisdictions nationwide.
The U.S. Justice Department defended the practice in its
brief urging the court to hear the Wurie case. Government
lawyers say searching a cell phone is no different than
searching other items commonly found on a person at the time of
A prohibition against the searches would be particularly
troublesome to prosecutors because of "the ubiquity of cell
phone use by drug traffickers and other serious offenders," the
government lawyers said.
The court will hear oral arguments in April and issue
rulings by the end of June. The cases are Riley v. California,
13-132 and U.S. v. Wurie, 13-212.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and James