Court torn on warrantless phone searches

WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9) -- What's on your cell phone? Intimate photos? Text messages to your lover? Would you want Police rifling through them?

In two hours of arguments, Supreme Court justices seemed torn on whether cops can search your phone without a warrant if you are arrested; be it for littering, or for murder.

Some of us now seem to live our whole lives on our phones. Our medical records, our finances, all stored on a chip in our hands or in our pockets. When Police arrest someone, they can search their person but searching your car, or your home usually requires a warrant from a judge.

"An occasion of arrest should not expose somebody's entire life and their most personal private correspondence and letters to police investigation," said Jeffrey Fisher, who argued the case for David Riley, who Police linked to a gang shooting after searching through his phone.

Police, prosecutors and the Obama Administration told the Supreme Court justices that warrantless searches of arrestees are justified to find weapons and prevent the destruction of evidence.

"Our rule has been, if you carry it on your person," said Justice Antonin Scalia, "it's subject to seizure and examination."

But Justice Kennedy wondered if someone arrested for a minor crime should have his whole life exposed.

"The court has said somebody's expectation of privacy is reduced upon arrest, but it's not extinguished," Fisher told reporters outside the court. "It's a question, as the 4th Amendment says, of what is reasonable."

Even the most brilliant of the founding fathers could not have predicted the power of the smart phone. James Madison's personal papers run to 72,000 pages at the Library of Congress. A smart phone holds ten times that. If it was books, it would cover an entire football field.

The court could compromise: If Police arrest you for a crime, they can search your phone for evidence of that crime. But arrest you for jay-walking, and they would have to leave your phone alone.

The Supreme Court has wrestled for years with questions about the 4th Amendment and unreasonable searches. And the explosive issue of NSA surveillance of phone data may be yet to come.


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