Last Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to weigh in on whether law enforcement officers need a warrant to search the contents of a smart/cell phone seized during a lawful arrest (see Washington Post and Wall Street Journal Articles). As I’ve previously written, this issue, which has deeply divided federal and state courts, highlights the tension between individual privacy interests and applying the Fourth Amendment – a document drafted hundreds of years ago, when mail could take months to travel across the Atlantic – to today’s technology, when data can span the globe in a matter of seconds.
The two cases are: Riley v. California, stemming from a decision by the California Court of Appeal, and United States v. Wurie, an appeal from a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. With regard to the Wurie decision, the First Circuit’s denial of the government’s petition for en banc review is especially noteworthy. There, Chief Judge Lynch noted that the case clearly merited en banc review, but he voted to deny such a rehearing:
“because I think the preferable course is to speed this case to the Supreme Court for its consideration. . . . The decision in this case creates a circuit split with respect to the validity of warrantless searches of cell phones incident to arrest. State courts similarly are divided. As the government points out, the differing standards which the courts have developed provide confusing and often contradictory guidance to law enforcement. . . . Only the Supreme Court can finally resolve these issues and I hope it will.”
The Court will hear the cases in its April session and issue its decision by June.