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What you need to know to keep the Feds out of your phone

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If you're arrested for overdue speeding tickets, is it acceptable for the police to search the phone on your person? How about if you're arrested for drug trafficking? In the eyes of the law, there is no difference: If you're arrested, you're arrested, whatever the crime. Isn't that an invasion of privacy? That depends on your interpretation of the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which states:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

That's why two cases being heard at the United States Supreme Court today are of such importance. Both cases hinge on whether police are legally allowed to search the contents of mobile phones confiscated from arrestees without first obtaining a warrant, and the decisions leveled by the Supreme Court will impact every citizen in the United States.

WHAT IS IT?

Across two hours this morning, the Supreme Court will hear the cases of David Riley and Brima Wurie. In the case of Riley (Riley v. California), a smartphone is at the heart of the battle. Wurie's case, United States v. Brima Wurie, involves a flip phone (or "dumb" phone, if you'd prefer).

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Currently, police are able to search the person of an arrested individual: pockets, socks, etc. The frisking you've see on TV? Yeah, those. It's called the "search incident to lawful arrest" doctrine. "The area into which he might reach," is the specific phrase used to allow this warrantless search, with the intention of preventing suspects from either reaching for a weapon or destroying/hiding evidence. Pretty simple! "Make sure the arrested person doesn't have a secret weapon and/or doesn't destroy the evidence" is a solid argument for police to enact said search.

In today's hearings, information obtained from the cellphones of arrested individuals is at the heart of the matter. To search a cellphone, the law states that authorities must first obtain a search warrant. In both of today's cases, the US government is arguing in favor of authorities being allowed to search arrestees' phones without a warrant.

The rulings of the two cases -- however they're decided -- will be comprehensive in the context of available phone technology. The rulings will not cover wearables, watches or any other form of personal electronics that are used for communication.

WHY SHOULD I CARE?

You've probably put it together already, but you should care because modern phones are more than just phones. They contain banking and medical information, location tracking, access to email and tons of additional info otherwise physically incapable of being kept on your person.

In so many words: We've got little computers in our pockets and most of us allow those computers access to a mess of personal information. If authorities want to access your computer, it requires a warrant. Should the US government's stance be upheld in these cases, the computer in your pocket could be searched without such a warrant.

WHAT'S AT STAKE?

There are big-picture questions of personal freedoms at play here, as well as the rights of the arrested:

  • Are smartphones considered phones or computers by the US legal system? Aren't they both?
  • If you're arrested and your phone is password-locked, are you obligated to release the password?
  • Doesn't the fourth amendment specifically protect the kind of information that US citizens keep on smartphones?

WHAT'S THE ARGUMENT?

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In Riley's case, he was convicted in California -- based on evidence obtained from his smartphone -- and the decision was upheld based on the aforementioned "search incident to lawful arrest" doctrine. As for Wurie, his case was overturned by the US First District Court of Appeals, which argued police aren't legally allowed to search an arrestee's phone without a warrant.

That disparity in interpretation is the focal point of today's two cases.

WANT EVEN MORE?

We sure hope you do, because this one's dense and there's plenty of legal minutiae to dig through (if you're into that kinda thing). First up, the SCOTUS Blog has a great, lengthy recap of both trials and an argument preview right here. The New York Times also has a piece breaking down more of the case, such as the impact of signal-blocking Faraday bags on the technical arguments.

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