The Times West Virginian

Headline News

January 17, 2014

High court could weigh in on cellphone searches

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court decided 40 years ago that police don’t need a search warrant to look through anything a person is carrying when arrested. But that was long before smartphones gave people the ability to take with them the equivalent of millions of pages of documents or thousands of photographs.

In a new clash over technology and privacy, the court is being asked to resolve divisions among federal and state courts over whether the old rules should still apply in the digital age.

The justices could say as early as Friday whether they will hear appeals involving warrantless cellphone searches that led to criminal convictions and lengthy prison terms.

There are parallels to other cases making their way through the federal courts, including the much-publicized ones that challenge the massive collection without warrants of telephone records by the National Security Agency. Though the details and scale are far different — searching a single phone for evidence that could send someone to jail versus gathering huge amounts of data, almost all of which will never be used — In both situations the government is relying on Supreme Court decisions from the 1970s, when most households still had rotary-dial telephones.

Cellphones are now everywhere. More than 90 percent of Americans own at least one, the Pew Research Center says, and the majority of those are smartphones — essentially increasingly powerful computers that are also telephones.

In one of two cases before the justices, the federal appeals court in Boston threw out evidence police found when they conducted a limited search of a suspected drug dealer’s cellphone after his arrest. Judge Norman Stahl of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said warrantless cellphone searches create a serious threat to the privacy even of people who have been properly arrested.

“Today, many Americans store their most personal ‘papers’ and ‘effects’ in electronic format, on a cellphone, carried on the person,” Stahl said.

Under the Fourth Amendment, police generally need a warrant before they can conduct a search. The warrant itself must be based on “probable cause,” evidence that a crime has been committed, the Constitution says.

But in the early 1970s, the Supreme Court carved out exceptions for officers dealing with people they have arrested. The court was trying to set clear rules that allowed police to look for concealed weapons and prevent the destruction of evidence.  Briefcases, wallets, purses and crumpled cigarette packs all are fair game if they are being carried by a suspect or within the person’s immediate control.

Car searches pose a somewhat different issue and in 2009, in the case of a suspect who had been handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a police cruiser, the court said police may search a car only if the arrestee “is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment” or they believe the car contains evidence relevant to the crime for which the person had been arrested.

There is growing division in state and federal courts over whether cellphones deserve special protection. At least six courts have allowed warrantless searches, and at least three have not, said Stanford University’s Jeffrey Fisher, representing a California defendant whose case is the other one being considered by the Supreme Court.

The California case may attract the court’s attention because it involves a more extensive search of a smartphone.

Things quickly went from bad to worse for Fisher’s client, David Leon Riley, when a San Diego police officer pulled over Riley’s Lexus for having an expired registration. In quick succession, police learned Riley’s license was suspended, decided to impound the car and found loaded guns under its hood. Riley was arrested.

An officer looking at Riley’s Samsung smartphone saw that some words normally beginning with the letter K were preceded by the letter C. Police say the notation CK signifies “Crip Killers,” a slang term for members of a gang known as the “Bloods.”

Hours later at a San Diego police station, a detective examined the phone more closely, finding videos and pictures providing more evidence of Riley’s gang affiliation, including one showing he may have been involved in a gang-related shooting. A photograph showed Riley posing in front of a red Oldsmobile police suspected was used to flee the scene of a shooting. It turned out Riley owned the red car, and tests confirmed that the guns seized from the Lexus were used in the shooting.

Indicted for attempted murder and other charges, Riley was convicted and sentenced to a term of 15 years to life in prison. At no time did police seek a warrant to search his smartphone.

In the Boston case, Brima Wurie emptied a set of keys, $1,275 in cash and two cellphones from his pockets when he arrived at a Boston police station for processing in September 2007 after his arrest on suspicion of selling crack cocaine.

Police eventually examined the call log on his flip phone and used the information to determine where he lived. When they searched his home, armed with a warrant, they found crack, marijuana, a gun and ammunition. The evidence was enough to land him more than 20 years in prison.

The Justice Department is appealing the 1st Circuit ruling that threw out the evidence against Wurie, encouraged by a judge who dissented from the decision and a second who wanted to speed the issue along to the high court.

“Only the Supreme Court can finally resolve these issues, and I hope it will,” Chief Judge Jane Lynch wrote.

1
Text Only
Headline News
  • George Harrison memorial tree killed by beetles

     A tree planted in Los Angeles to honor former Beatle George Harrison has been killed — by beetles.

    July 23, 2014

  • ‘X-Men’ VR experience coming to Comic-Con

    Comic-Con attendees will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to enter the mind of Professor X.
    20th Century Fox has created an “X-Men”-themed virtual reality stunt especially for the pop-culture convention, which kicks off Thursday in San Diego. The interactive digital experience utilizes the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, which is not yet available to consumers, to simulate the fictional Cerebro technology used to track down mutants by the character portrayed by Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy in the “X-Men” films.

    July 23, 2014

  • Centenarian Weather W_time2.jpg At 101, weather observer gets a place in the sun

    It takes only a couple of minutes, twice a day, but 101-year-old Richard Hendrickson is fiercely proud that he has done the same thing for his country and community nearly every day since Herbert Hoover was in the White House in 1930.
    The retired chicken and dairy farmer, whose home sits in the heart of the ritzy Hamptons, has been recording daily readings of temperature and precipitation on eastern Long Island longer than any volunteer observer in the history of the National Weather Service.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Starved Pennsylvania 7-year-old weighed only 25 pounds

    A 7-year-old Pennsylvania boy authorities described as being so underweight he looked like a human skeleton has been released from the hospital.

    July 22, 2014

  • U.S. outlines case against Russia on downed plane

    Video of a rocket launcher, one surface-to-air missile missing, leaving the likely launch site. Imagery showing the firing. Calls claiming credit for the strike. Recordings said to reveal a cover-up at the crash site.

    July 21, 2014

  • James Garner Obit.jpg 'Maverick' star James Garner, 86, dies in California

     Actor James Garner, whose whimsical style in the 1950s TV Western "Maverick" led to a stellar career in TV and films such as "The Rockford Files" and his Oscar-nominated "Murphy's Romance," has died, police said. He was 86.

    July 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Given life term, drug offender hopes for clemency

    From the very start, Scott Walker refused to believe he would die in prison.
    Arrested and jailed at 25, then sent to prison more than two years later, Walker couldn’t imagine spending his life behind bars for dealing drugs. He told himself this wasn’t the end, that someday he’d be released. But the years passed, his appeals failed and nothing changed.

    July 20, 2014

  • Teen’s death puts focus on caffeine powder dangers

    A few weeks before their prom king’s death, students at an Ohio high school had attended an assembly on narcotics that warned about the dangers of heroin and prescription painkillers.
    But it was one of the world’s most widely accepted drugs that killed Logan Stiner — a powdered form of caffeine so potent that as little as a single teaspoon can be fatal.

    July 20, 2014

  • Monitors try to secure Ukraine plane crash site

    International monitors moved gingerly Saturday through fields reeking of the decomposing corpses that fell from a Malaysian airliner shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine, trying to secure the sprawling site in hopes that a credible investigation can be conducted.
    But before inspectors ever reach the scene, doubts arose about whether evidence was being compromised.

    July 20, 2014

  • Without radar, missile may not have identified jet

    If Ukrainian rebels shot down the Malaysian jetliner, killing 298 people, it may have been because they didn’t have the right systems in place to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft, experts said Saturday.
    American officials said Friday that they believe the Boeing 777 was brought down by an SA-11 missile fired from an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

    July 20, 2014

House Ads
Featured Ads