A court case with widespread implications for the privacy of American citizens was recently filed in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Western Center for Journalism is proud to stand up for individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights as an interested party in the brief submitted Wednesday to the nation’s highest court.
In considering the case, the issue left for justices to decide is whether the Fourth Amendment gives police the authorization to search through an arrestee’s phone records without a warrant.
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The case, United States V. Wurie, stems from a Sept. 7, 2007 traffic stop by police who believed the driver, Brima Wurie, was involved in a drug transaction. Boston police pulled Wurie over after witnessing him pick up another man, Fred Wade, and return a short time later to drop him off.
Both men were subsequently arrested after officers discovered a quarter-ounce of cocaine in Wade’s possession. Upon arriving at the police station, Wurie’s cell phone rang; and police used the opportunity to track down the caller to a home in the city. Upon arriving, officers reportedly smelled marijuana and obtained a search warrant for the premises.
In the end, officers reportedly found a substantial stash of crack cocaine, a gun with ammunition, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia.
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Wurie was indicted the following year for felony possession of a firearm, possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, and distribution within 1,000 feet of a school.
During Wurie’s trial, he made a motion to suppress any evidence gained through the search of his cell phone log, concluding the search violated not only his Fourth, but his Sixth and 14th Amendment rights. That court upheld the search; however, the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed that decision, concluding searches conducted after an arrest that neither protect officers nor preserve evidence can be contentious.
Furthermore, the court found, technological advances have allowed an increased amount of personal information to be stored in cell phones, which could allow police an avenue through which to tie arrestees to additional crimes without securing a warrant.
While the case ostensibly presents a fairly cut-and-dry decision for Supreme Court justices, the amicus brief filed this week explains that a “closer examination, however, reveals that the very foundation of the search-incident-to-arrest doctrine is at issue.”
The government, according to the brief, “argues for an almost limitless doctrine, that ‘an arresting officer may seize and search any items found on an arrestee’s person, including closed containers.’”
Citing a similar case, the brief concludes that a search of “the digital contents of a smart phone furthers neither of the [historically recognized] government interests … and impinges upon personal privacy to an unprecedented degree.”
The term ‘privacy,’ however, is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution, the brief explains.
“The correct constitutional test is grounded in the plain language of the Fourth Amendment,” it adds. In conclusion, the brief included a hypothetical situation to make a point, noting that the Supreme Court has already upheld the right of police to arrest a person for an infraction that does not carry the possibility of jail time.
“Consider the case of a lawyer arrested for a traffic offense,” the narrative begins. “Is it to be the law that the police may scrutinize his smartphone, laptop, flash drive, iPad, briefcase, and client files – without warrant or suspicion of any wrongdoing – simply because he has failed to use his turn signal when merging? If a lawyer’s confidences should not be searched, why should any other person be given fewer rights?”
While virtually no American wants a legal system that perpetuates illicit drug distribution, most consider it vital that officers remain constrained by the constitutional limitations enacted through the Bill of Rights.
Arguments in the case are scheduled to commence later this month. For millions of Americans concerned about a government consistently encroaching on their liberty, this decision will be one with very important implications. View the brief in its entirety below: