Obama Asks U.S. Supreme Court for Stamp of Approval on Warrantless Cell Phone Searches

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Obama administration wants the U.S. Supreme Court to rule, once and for all, that police can search a person’s cell phone for information without first obtaining a warrant.

The issue of cell phones and warrants reached the Supreme Court after lower federal court rulings clashed with one another. After the First Circuit Court of Appeals found law enforcement needed to obtain a warrant, the U.S. Department of Justice petitioned (pdf) the high court to review the case.

The case in question began in Massachusetts, where police arrested a man who appeared to be selling crack cocaine from his car. Officers confiscated his cell phone and used it to locate his home, which contained drugs, cash and guns.

The defendant claims the seizure of his phone violated his Fourth Amendment rights guaranteeing protection from illegal searches by police.

The Obama Administration disagrees, and argues that earlier rulings by the Supreme Court allow the police to search possessions on a person without a warrant, including notebooks, calendars and pagers. The government contends that a cell phone is no different than any other object a suspect might be carrying.


“But as the storage capacity of cell phones rises, that position could become harder to defend,” wrote Timothy Lee of The Washington Post. “Our smart phones increasingly contain everything about our digital lives: our e-mails, text messages, photographs, browser histories and more. It would be troubling if the police had the power to get all that information with no warrant merely by arresting a suspect.”


Lee also noted that the Massachusetts case involved “a primitive flip-phone, which could make this a bad test case,” considering so many newer phones contain much more personal information.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Obama Administration Asks Supreme Court to Allow Warrantless Cellphone Searches (by Timothy B. Lee, Washington Post)

United States of America, Petitioner v. Brima Wurie (U.S. Supreme Court Petition) (pdf)

Waiting for the Supreme Court to Decide if Cell Phone Use can be Private (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Obama Administration Fights to Allow Warrantless GPS Tracking (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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