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Law Enforcement Bulletin: Supreme Court to Hear Cases on Cell Phone Searches

This month, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments on two cases—one federal (U.S. v. Wurie) and one state (Riley v. California)—involving and affecting cell phone searches by police. Both cases address the extent of authority law enforcement officers hold in obtaining information from suspects’ personal cell phones, and lower courts in each case have previously come to opposite conclusions.

In the following excerpt from an article published on, international law enforcement trainer and writer Val Van Brocklin discusses each of the cases to be heard by the Supreme Court:

The State Case

Riley was stopped for expired tags. When police discovered loaded guns in his vehicle, they arrested Riley and searched his smart phone without a warrant. They found evidence identifying Riley as a gang member intent on killing some rival gang members. Police traced calls that pointed to Riley as a participant in a shooting at rival members. No one positively identified Riley but the jury heard the evidence from the cell phone search and convicted Riley of shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder and assault with a semi-automatic weapon. He was sentenced to fifteen years to life.

On appeal, the California Supreme Court — which had previously ruled that such searches are legal — affirmed Riley's conviction.

In granting review, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would rule only on ‘whether evidence admitted at [his] trial was obtained in a search of [his] cellphone that violated [his] Fourth Amendment rights.’

The Federal Case

Believing they had witnessed a drug transaction between Brima Wurie and Fred Wade, police confronted Wade and found two 8-balls of cocaine. Other officers arrested Wurie. At the police station, Wurie’s cell phone rang. Police opened the phone and traced the call to an address in Boston. Police went to the address and knocked. When a woman opened the door they smelled marijuana. Police got a search warrant and recovered 215 grams of crack cocaine, a 9mm pistol, assorted ammunition, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia.

Wurie was indicted for felony possession of a firearm and ammunition, distribution of crack cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school and possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute. He moved to suppress the evidence gained from his cell phone, arguing that the police had violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court held that the cell phone search was incidental to Wurie’s arrest and was limited and reasonable.

The First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the search was not conducted for officer safety or to preserve destructible evidence. The Court noted that a modern cell phone is like a personal computer that can contain large amounts of highly personal information. Because searching cell phones could be a convenient way for the police to find more information relating to the suspect’s arrest or even other crimes, the Court held that police could not perform warrantless searches of cell phones unless specific exigent circumstances existed.

In accepting U.S. v. Wurie, the Supreme Court said it would address the broader issue of whether the Fourth Amendment allows police to conduct a warrantless review of the call log of the cell phone belonging to a person who has been lawfully arrested.

If the Court rules the search in Wurie was constitutional, law enforcement can only hope the Court goes on to give some guidance regarding searches that go beyond just a call log. It’s up to the Court whether to decide the issue narrowly on just the facts presented in Wurie or to issue a more sweeping decision on cell phone privacy.”

Van Brocklin also notes while it takes an average of 14 to 16 weeks for the Supreme Court to issue a decision, 30 weeks is not uncommon.

For questions on this or other law enforcement issues, please feel free to contact AMRRP’s Mike Branham at (602) 368-6624 or [email protected]


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