The Supreme Court on April 29, 2014, heard oral arguments in U.S. v. Wurie, a case testing yet again the boundaries of law and technology with compelling argument on both sides.
Brima Wurie was arrested in 2007 after a drug sale for distributing crack cocaine. After arrest, the officers looked through his cell phone which kept ringing and from reviewing the call log connected a number stored as “my house” to his actual house location. The officers then obtained a warrant for search of the house and confiscated substantially additional drugs and weapons form the home. The trial court did not grant the defense motion to suppress evidence based on illegal search of his cell phone and he was convicted and sentenced to 262 months. On appeal, the First Circuit held that the search of the cell phone essentially was beyond the permissible search-incident to the arrest articulated in U.S. v. Robinson and reversed the conviction. The case was thus appealed to the US Supreme Court.
At the oral arguments both the government and defense made compelling arguments adding weight and significance to the impending Court’s decision. The government argued that under Robinson, the limited search of the phone was permissible and did fall under two main reasons articulated in the case: 1) to preserve the evidence, and 2) to protect the safety of the officers. The government also argued that as the phone was on Wurie’s person, it was considered a permissible search incident to the arrest. The cell phone in this case was a device used in the commission and in furtherance of the crime and thus again a permissible search. That this cursory search would be no different than the officers finding a piece of paper on Wurie with his home address on it, again permissible to unfold and review. Chief Justice Roberts seemed to indicate that as the same information could have been extrapolated from Wurie’s driver’s license, the search of the phone log was no more intrusive under the 4th amendment. Justice Sotomayor suggested that as the phone was ringing, the number could have been viewed without even looking at the call log, and as the police officers during search of a dwelling are permitted to answer the phone or open the door if there is a knock – under the circumstances, the information gathered by the officers was virtually in plain view and again permissible.
The Court during the oral arguments attempted to develop a constitutionally permissible rule that would protect the law enforcement interested while not ebbing away from the 4th amendment protections. A very difficult task, and one that the Court will have to struggle with in the coming months and years with technology often testing and redefining the laws and its boundaries.
The facts in Wurie were not compelling enough to disallow the limited search in the case. The phone kept ringing and the designation of the number was “my house.” The officers only looked through the recent call log and were able to quickly connect the number with a correct address for Wurie. The cell phone was on Wurie’s person, in fact two were founded on him. He was suspected of drug sale and cell phone are well known instrument of crime. A search warrant was obtained to search the house and significant drugs and weapons recovered. The officer’s had other way to locate Wurie’s house, through his driver’s license or other mean unrelated to his cell phone. Also the phone kept ringing during the arrest and processing of Wurie. With these facts, the court will most likely reverse the First Circuit. The important precedent would be in the language of the opinion with respect to cell phone/ipad/laptop searches found on the person upon arrest. Whether the Court would delineate between a limited circumstantial look into a phone rather than a full-blown search of the device found.
This opinion is significant as the Court will most likely redefine the contour of the 4th Amendment with respect to warrantless searches incident to an arrest.