The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled police may not search the cell phones of people they arrest without first getting a search warrant. The Obama administration and the states of California and Massachusetts , defending the cell phone searches, said cell phones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find.
In San Diego, police found indications of gang membership when they looked through defendant David Riley’s smart phone. Prosecutors used video and photographs found on the smart phone to persuade a jury to convict Riley of attempted murder and other charges.
California courts rejected Riley’s efforts to throw out the evidence and upheld the convictions, however the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the California’s high court to take a new look at Riley’s case.
In Boston, a federal appeals court ruled police must have a warrant before searching suspect’s cell phone. Police arrested Brima Wurie on suspicion of selling crack cocaine, checked the call log on his flip phone and used that information to find where he lived.
When they searched Wurie’s home, using a warrant, they found crack, marijuana, a gun and ammunition. The evidence was enough to produce a conviction and a prison term of more than 20 years.
The appeals court ruled for Wurie, but left in place his drug conviction for selling cocaine near a school that did not depend on the tainted evidence. That conviction also carried a 20-year sentence.
Because cell phones contain so much information, police must get a warrant before looking through them, Chief Justice John Roberts said.
“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may show, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” Roberts said.
The message to police about what they should do before rummaging through a cell phone’s contents following an arrest is simple.
“Get a warrant,” Roberts said.
The chief justice acknowledged that barring searches would affect law enforcement, but said: “Privacy comes at a cost.”
Authorities concerned about the destruction of evidence can take steps to prevent the remote erasure of a phone’s contents or the activation of encryption, Roberts said. One exception to the warrant requirement left open by the decision is a case in which officers reasonably fear for their safety or the lives of others.
Legal observers noted that the language in the court’s ruling could give new life to lawsuits claiming the NSA’s monitoring program violates the Fourth Amendment.
Last February, Senator Rand Paul asked a federal court to make the National Security Agency destroy the American phone records it has gathered as part of a data-mining program on the grounds that bulk collection violates the Fourth Amendment.
“We will ask the question in court whether a single warrant can apply to the records of every American phone user, all of the time, without limits, without individualization,” Paul told reporters outside the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The Supreme Court also delivered a blow to President Obama, ruling he went too far in making recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. The court sided with Senate Republicans and limited the president’s power to fill high-level vacancies with temporary appointments.
It was the first-ever Supreme Court test involving the long-standing practice of presidents naming appointees when the Senate is on break. In this case, Obama had argued that the Senate was on an extended holiday break when he filled slots at the NLRB in 2012.
He argued the brief sessions it held every three days were a sham intended to prevent him from filling the seats. The justices rejected that argument, though, declaring the Senate was not actually in a formal recess when Obama acted during that three-day window.
Justice Stephen Breyer said in his majority opinion that a congressional break has to last at least 10 days to be considered a recess under the Constitution.
“Three days is too short a time to bring a recess within the scope of the Clause. Thus we conclude that the President lacked the power to make the recess appointments here at issue,” Breyer wrote.
At the same time, the court upheld the general authority of the president to make recess appointments.
Reacting to the Supreme Court decision, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the administration is “deeply disappointed” in the ruling.
He said that while the administration disagrees with the decision, it will honor it.
Finally, the high court struck down a Massachusetts law that set a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, saying it violates the First Amendment. Massachusetts had argued that the buffer zone, which anti-abortion protesters said violated their free speech rights, keeps patients and clinic staff safer.
“The buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests,” Roberts wrote on behalf of the court.
The immediate impact of the decision will be on Massachusetts, but advocates expect that similar fixed-distance buffer zones in other states, including one now being challenged in Maine, will be next. The Supreme Court stopped short of declaring that the law discriminated against the anti-abortion viewpoint.
A decision is expected next week in another case about access to reproductive health — Hobby Lobby versus Sebelius, taking aim at contraceptive coverage under Obamacare.