Jennifer Warfield, MJLST Staff
In “Constitutionalizing Email Privacy by Information Access” from Volume 9, Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, & Technology, Manish Kumar discussed the unique Fourth Amendment issues raised by governmental access to electronic communications, specifically emails. Similar privacy issues are now being analyzed and reviewed by the Supreme Court in the context of warrantless searches of cell phones by law enforcement in two cases: Riley v. California, No. 13-132 and United States v. Wurie, No. 13-212.
The courts have traditionally allowed warrantless searches pursuant to the Search of Person Incident to Arrest (SPIA) exception to the Fourth Amendment. Under this doctrine a police officer may search an arrestee’s person incident to the arrest and seize and search any personal property in his or her possession at the time of the arrest. Such searches are justified under the theory that they protect officers by allowing them to search for weapons and preserve evidence. The Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits have upheld warrantless searches of cell phones under the SPIA doctrine on the grounds that a cell phone is analogous to a container like a backpack or wallet, which the Supreme Court has long deemed searchable. Other courts have held that modern cell phones cannot be compared to traditional containers given the vast amount of sensitive data contained within them, and that less intrusive measures can be used in the name of data preservation such as Faraday Bags or “airplane mode,” which both prevent internet signals from reaching a phone to prevent remote wiping.
The specific issues before the Supreme Court in Riley and Wurie are respectively: 1) whether the Defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when he was convicted for attempted murder based on the police’s search of his smartphone after he was pulled over for having an expired auto registration; and 2) whether evidence gathered after the police inspected a drug dealer’s call log should have been thrown out by the federal appeals court in Boston. These cases provide the Supreme Court an opportunity to clarify the meaning of the Fourth Amendment in the age of smartphones, and will shed light on how similar devices like tablets and laptops will be treated by courts and police officers in the future.