Supreme Court to Hear Critical Fourth Amendment Appeals

By:  Bob Adelmann
Supreme Court to Hear Critical Fourth Amendment Appeals

Convenience of the state versus personal privacy is the key issue to be presented to the Supreme Court on Tuesday when it hears appeals based on the Fourth Amendment's right to avoid warrantless searches.

David Leon Riley was driving through a residential area of San Diego in August of 2009 when he was stopped for having expired license tags on his car. A so-called routine search of his vehicle turned up a couple of handguns, whereupon he was arrested. The police took his smartphone and examined it down at the station house, discovering e-mails, text messages, and videos implicating him in a gang-war drive-by shooting two weeks earlier. He was charged with and convicted of shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder, and assault with a deadly weapon, along with other gang-related crimes, and sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Riley’s attorneys tried without success to have the evidence from his smartphone suppressed, claiming that the police didn’t secure a search warrant first. But on appeal his case will be heard by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Brima Wurie was arrested by Boston police in September 2007 for doing a drug deal, and they took from him cash, keys, and two cellphones, including a now-ancient flip-style phone. Wurie gave them a false address, but their search of his flip-phone revealed his real address. The police then secured a search warrant and entered his apartment, finding more drugs and cash along with a gun and ammunition.

Like Riley, Wurie was charged with various crimes, convicted, and sentenced to 20 years in jail. Unlike Riley, however, Wurie had his original sentence reduced by 22 months when an appeals court overturned his conviction on two counts resulting from the unwarranted search of his flip-phone. The First Circuit Court referred to a previous Supreme Court case — Chimel v. California, where the “search-incident-to-arrest” exception to the Fourth Amendment was created — claiming that in the Wurie case the exception didn’t apply.

Upon appeal, the Supreme Court will also hear the Wurie case on Tuesday, right after hearing Riley’s. On the surface the cases appear to involve similar circumstances, but with differing outcomes and potentially significant rulings on how the Fourth Amendment applies today in the digital high-tech smartphone world.

As a refresher, here is the language of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

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