Supreme Court to Rule on Unwarranted Cell Searches


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President Obama addressed recent outrage over unwarranted cell phone searches by police in a speech he gave at the Department of Justice on Friday. The President's statement comes at a time when there has been much public debate over the legality of searches performed by police on a suspect's cell phone without first obtaining a warrant.

Two recent court cases have now caused both the President and the U.S. Supreme Court to begin a formal debate over whether police should be able to search an arrested suspect's phone without a warrant.

In a case from 2009, a suspect in California was convicted after the prosecution presented evidence in court, which had been obtained from the defendant's smartphone without a warrant. A suspicious picture on the phone was found by police and presented as evidence, resulting in an eventual conviction.

In a Massachusetts case, an arrest made in September 2007 culminated in a conviction after the prosecution used evidence obtained from an unwarranted search of the call log on the arrestee's cell phone. Both cases were appealed and sent to the Supreme Court.

Many civil liberties groups across the nation are demanding that a stop be put to both, the unlawful searches of cell phones, as well as government storage of U.S. citizen's cell phone metadata. One such group, Demand Progress, says that the collection (and storage) of metadata should be ended entirely.

In June, the President publicly said that he "welcomed" a debate over the government's storage of cell data, but nothing was said further about the question of citizen's Fourth Amendment Rights being violated until his Friday speech in Washington.

The information on the National Security Agency's policy on collecting and storing cell phone data was leaked last year by former employee Edward Snowden, and is the root cause for the debate now taking place.

Upon the public outcry, the President addressed the issue, but did not detail a new policy until last week when he stated that the government will not stop the gathering of data. but that a private third party will now store the information for the government. The only time federal officials will be allowed access to the data is when there is evidence of a person being three steps removed from a terrorist organization. The details of Obama's new action were outlined in a document later released by the White House.

Hanni Fakhoury, a former federal public defender, says that in most areas of the country it is standard procedure for police to search an arrested person's cell phone without obtaining consent. As well, it is being argued that many court cases will be much more difficult to prosecute without such evidence, and that a cell phone is really no different than other items searched during an arrest.

The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the matter in April, and are scheduled to issue their ruling in June.

Main image courtesy West Midlands Police/Face Watch App via Wikimedia Commons.