The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide if police can seize and look through a suspect’s cellphone without getting a warrant. This photo shows women in Los Angeles using smartphones on Jan. 7. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. Supreme Court is delving into the technology-versus-privacy debate, agreeing to hear two cases that test whether police making an arrest may search cellphones without a warrant.
The court’s announcement Friday that it would take the cases came just hours after President Obama outlined his proposals to address government retention of citizen phone data as part of his speech outlining reforms at the National Security Agency.
The court said it would hear arguments, likely in April, in two cases with conflicting decisions from the lower courts.
In one case, from California, David Riley was pulled over for expired tags. When police then discovered loaded guns in his vehicle, they arrested Riley and searched his smartphone. Investigators found photos and contacts linking Riley to gang activity, and prosecutors used the smartphone information at trial to win a conviction. Riley received a prison term of 15 years to life.
The California Supreme Court, which had previously ruled that such searches are legal, left Riley’s conviction in place.
Across the country, a federal appeals court in Boston reached the opposite conclusion, barring all warrantless cellphone searches except in emergency situations. The Obama administration appealed that ruling, contending that immediate searches of cellphones are especially important because the information contained in them can be so easily and quickly erased.
The Supreme Court’s eventual decision in these cases could lay the groundwork for future rulings on the NSA’s collection of cellphone metadata.
However the Supreme Court rules, its decision will have enormous practical consequences, since 90 percent of all Americans own mobile phones.