The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday on whether police have the right to look through the cellphones of people they arrest without getting a warrant.
Two lower courts have given opposing rulings, prompting the high court to take up the issue.
Suspects in Massachusetts and California were convicted after information was obtained from their smartphones. In the California case, the conviction was upheld. In Massachusetts it was overturned.
A 40-year-old precedent has allowed police to search items in a suspect's possession while under arrest. But that ruling was made before cellphone technology and applied to such things as wallets or address books.
But modern smartphones are essentially computers that happen to also function as a telephone. They contain information once only available by searching someone's home, bank vault and medicine cabinet, NBC News notes
But law enforcement finds the devices to be useful in criminal investigations. Just as law-abiding citizens store the activities of their lives on their phones, so do those engaged in illegal activity.
Drug deals and other crimes are commonly carried out through text messaging and cell calls and crimes themselves are sometimes shot on still photos are video. Contact information usually contains the means to track down criminal associates.
The U.S. Justice Department is siding with the State of California in seeking the ability of police to search phones. Privacy advocates warn of government overreach.
"Modern cellphones provide ready access to a vast array of personal data, and are distinct from the types of possessions, such as cigarette packages and footlockers, this court has previously considered," Jeffery Fisher, a defense attorney in the California case told CNN
"Thus, a search incident to arrest could, at the touch of a button, become a search of private and confidential information such as medical records, banking activity, and work-related emails," he said.
In the California case, David Riley was detained for having an expired vehicle registration and suspended license in 2009. In a search of his car, they found loaded weapons under the hood.
They then looked through his smartphone and found evidence they believed linked him to organized crime. His conviction was upheld.
In the Massachusetts case, Brima Wurie was arrested in 2007 for cocaine distribution. He gave police a fake home address, but a search of his flip phone found his real address, and a search was executed on his home where more drugs, a weapon and ammunition were found.
Wurie's conviction was overturned on appeal.
The cases are U.S. v. Wurie (13-212) and Riley v. California (13-132). A decision is expected in June.
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