The Ambiguity of the Fourth Amendment

by Lucas Witherspoon

Is a warrantless cellphone search a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights?

That’s the situation that was contested in 2007 after police arrested a man in Massachusetts who stood accused of selling crack cocaine from his car, along with two counterparts. Police seized his phone and examined its contents without a warrant, after arresting him for driving on a suspended license and the two other men on drug charges. The accused man repeatedly received calls from a contact labeled “My House,” which in turn led police to the man’s home. Once there, they found a slew of drugs, cash, and firearms. The man was eventually convicted, but appealed his sentence, alleging that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. On appeal, a federal court agreed with the defendant, ruling earlier this year that a warrant should have been obtained by police before accessing the man’s phone.

However, earlier this month, the Obama administration filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking them to make a ruling in favor of warrantless searches of cellphones based on the Massachusetts ruling. Their basic argument is that the Supreme Court has, in the past, ruled on a number of cases that allow for sweeping exceptions to the Fourth Amendment, meaning the man’s conviction should have been upheld and that warrantless cellphone searches should be considered legal.

For example, in the case of Carroll v. United States,  the Court established that police must have a warrant to search a vehicle except in instances of exigent circumstance and when it is “reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” It’s a sort of legal grey area. In the Massachusetts case it could be subjectively argued that, because the defendant was suspected of dealing drugs (though only arrested because of a suspended license), a cellphone could reasonably be considered potential evidence, in addition to his automobile, given both could be considered staples of the drug trade. Alternately, police technically could have taken the driver into custody on the suspended license charge and legally searched his car while he was detained (United States v. Johns). Even with further clarification in the case of Arizona v. GantCarroll v. United States can still be upheld because Arizona v. Gant does not prevent or repeal the use of Carroll v. United States in court cases. Furthermore, as The Washington Post points out, “earlier cases have given the police broad discretion to search possessions on the person of an arrested suspect, including notebooks, calendars and pagers. The government contends that a cellphone is no different than any other object a suspect might be carrying.”

It’s not just the establishment of the automobile exception, however, as justified exceptions to the Fourth Amendment exist in a number of prominent Court rulings that are still applicable: Horton v. California, Illinois v. Rodriguez, Davis v. United States, etc. This sort of legal and constitutional dubiousness isn’t limited to the Fourth Amendment by any means, but Court-ordered stipulations pertaining to the Fourth Amendment have been some of the most hotly debated. What if you’re a physician, attorney, priest, banker, psychologist, psychiatrist,  etc.? Under the laws of client confidentiality, the consent of the client must be given unless there is “clear” legal reasoning. What is  considered clear legal reasoning by governmental standards as opposed to what’s considered individual clear legal reasoning? Again, subjectivity.

What needs to be made clear is what exactly defines probable cause pertinent to exigent circumstance as it relates to cellphones centrally. The hazy legal language does not blatantly make clear when it is appropriate for law enforcement to do so. What’s more, it lacks practicality, as has been noted, to hastily push for warantless searches based on the Massachusetts ruling, given it took place in 2007 and cellphone technology has vastly improved since then, which only seeks to further discredit the practicality of cellphone searches, as the law would have to be updated consistently and often. It’s not only a waste of time and resources, it’s virtually impossible. Thus, the warrantless seizure is not only futile, but subsequently very much in violation of the Fourth Amendment.