Big victory for personal rights, big loss for cops wanting to bust you for diddling on your cell phone while driving.
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide whether police can search an arrested criminal suspect's cell phone without a warrant in two cases that showcase how the courts are wrestling to keep up with rapid technological advances.
Taking up cases from California and Massachusetts arising from criminal prosecutions that used evidence obtained without a warrant, the high court will wade into how to apply older court precedent, which allows police to search items carried by a defendant at the time of arrest, to cell phones.
Cell phones have evolved from devices used exclusively to make calls into gadgets that now contain a bounty of personal information about the owner.
The legal question before the justices is whether a search for such information after a defendant is arrested violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans unreasonable searches. The outcome would determine whether prosecutors in such circumstances could submit evidence gleaned from cell phones in court.
Digital rights activists have sounded the alarm about the amount of personal data the government can now easily access, not just in the criminal context, but also in relation to national security surveillance programs.
President Barack Obama on Friday announced plans to rein in the vast collection of Americans' phone data in a series of limited reforms prompted by disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about the sweep of U.S. eavesdropping activities.
Stanford Law School professor Jeffrey Fisher, who represents one of the defendants, said in court papers that it was important for the high court to decide the issue.
"In light of the frequency with which people are arrested with cell phones and the judiciary's confusion over whether the police may search the digital contents of those phones, this court's intervention is critical," Fisher said.
According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of adult Americans have a cell phone, more than a half of which are smartphones that can connect to the Internet and contain personal data from social media websites and other sources.
Under court precedent, police are permitted to search at the time of an arrest without a warrant, primarily to ensure the defendant is not armed and to secure evidence that could otherwise be destroyed. In the past, it has applied to such items as wallets, calendars, address books and diaries.