Tomorrow, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in two related cases, Riley v. California, and United States v. Wurie , that will decide an issue of vital importance to anyone who owns a cell phone who values their privacy. The court will decide whether the police can both seize a cell phone when its owner is arrested, and search its contents, all without seeking a search warrant.
The government’s position is simple. Police have been able to search the items that people carry with them at the time that they are arrested, such as briefcases and purses. A cell phone, says the government, is no different that these other objects and people have no special privacy interests in their phone.
Civil liberties groups have a more nuanced position. Cell phones have become the repository of so much personal information that used to be kept at home that they should be protected against a warrantless search in the same way that homes usually are under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Cell phones contain our personal pictures, the phones numbers of our friends and families, information about the websites we visit, our personal notes to ourselves, our emails, and information about what we buy, and who we buy it from. Civil liberties groups argue that the Supreme Court should not allow the police to rummage through this treasure trove of personal information without getting a warrant from a judge to do so.
Washington State’s Supreme Court has not yet decided this exact issue under our state Constitution, but did decide recently that the police could not examine and use the text messages of an arrested person’s phone to catch other persons whom they suspected would be involved in a drug charges. See my earlier post, “Is Privacy Dead in Washington” dated April 3, 2014.