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U.S. Supreme Court scheduled to hear Fourth Amendment cases

When does police conduct cross the line from enforcement into misconduct? Although the question may never have been easy to answer, the ubiquitous presence of cellphones and smartphones has added a new dimension to the analysis.

Specifically, technology has created new debates over the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. If a smartphone is found on a suspect’s person after he or she has been arrested, do police have a right to search it? Does that answer change if the device is password protected? Could a suspect be compelled to turn over the password to police after an arrest?

The U.S. Supreme Court has been called upon to decide two different cases involving contested evidence seized from the suspects’ cellphones. In one instance, police used a reverse telephone number director to track a number that registered on the suspect’s cellphone as his home number. After learning the man’s address, police obtained a warrant and searched his home, discovering illegal narcotics.

In another case, the suspect was pulled over on a traffic stop. However, his expired license resulted in his arrest. Back at the station, police noticed a photograph on his smartphone that resembled a car that had been implicated in a shooting. That evidence and ensuing investigation ultimately led to an indictment for murder.

In each case, the evidence that police seized without a warrant from the suspects’ cellphones permitted them to bring more serious charges. In the hands of an experienced criminal defense attorney, a legal argument contesting such warrantless searches could dramatically affect the outcome of the criminal trials.  

Source: Washington Post, “Supreme Court to decide case on police cellphone searches,” Robert Barnes, Jan. 17, 2014

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