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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Warrantless Cell Checks Head to Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CN) - Two criminal cases involving police searches of cellphones will have their day of reckoning before the Supreme Court, the justices said.

The first case involves a gang member whose cellphone was used to incriminate him as to an Aug. 2, 2009, shooting in the Skyline neighborhood of San Diego.

An Oldsmobile belonging to Lincoln Park gang member David Riley was parked in the street when three men standing beside it fired shots into another car passing by with a rival gang member at the wheel.

The shooters got into the Oldsmobile and drove away. Police found the Oldsmobile a day later, hidden under a car cover, but they did not stop Riley until on Aug. 22 when an officer found him driving a Lexus with expired registration tags.

Riley was being handed a ticket for driving with a suspended license when the officer searching the Lexus found two handguns hidden in an engine compartment. Both weapons were a match for the Aug. 2 shooting.

A DNA test also linked Riley and two other men as possible contributors to samples taken from one of the guns.

Investigators meanwhile found that Riley's phone was used near the place of the shooting at around the time of the shooting, and was used about 30 minutes later near the location where police found his Oldsmobile. There were also photographs on the phone of Riley making gang signs.

After the trial court refused to suppress the evidence obtained from the searches of Riley's car and cellphone, jurors convicted Riley of three counts: shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder and assault with an automatic firearm.

An appellate panel affirmed in February 2013 with Riley sentenced to 15 years to life.

The Supreme Court took up the case Friday along with another in which the defendant fared differently on his Fourth Amendment claims regarding a cellphone search.

Boston police had searched a cellphone belonging to Brima Wurie after they arrested him for distributing crack cocaine on Sept. 5, 2007.

During intake, one of Wurie's two phones received repeated incoming calls that the caller ID, visible from the front of the phone, identified as "my house."

The officers opened the phone to learn the phone number associated with that label and then connected that phone number to an address in South Boston close to where Wurie had parked his Nissan Altima before police arrested him.

Though Wurie told investigators that he lived in Dorchester, they took his keys to the South Boston address.

The name Manny Cristal was associated with the address in the white pages, and that same name appeared alongside Wurie's on the mailbox outside the property.

Police entered the first-floor apartment inhabited by a black woman and child, both of whom resembled a photo on Wurie's cellphone wallpaper, while they waited for a search warrant.

With the warrant in hand, the search ultimately revealed cash, crack, a firearm, ammunition, and other drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Facing new weapons charges as felon in possession of a firearm, Wurie moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of his cellphone.

A federal judge denied the motion, and a jury ultimately convicted Wurie on three counts. He was sentenced to over 21 years in prison, but a divided three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit vacated that conviction in May 2013 after finding it would create "a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals" if police were allowed to search cellphone data without a warrant any time they conduct a lawful arrest.

"Since the time of its framing, 'the central concern underlying the Fourth Amendment' has been ensuring that law enforcement officials do not have 'unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person's private effects,'" the majority opinion concluded. "Today, many Americans store their most personal 'papers' and 'effects' in electronic format on a cell phone, carried on the person."

Judge Jeffrey Howard had dissented from that opinion and dissented again some months later when the court refused to rehear the case en banc.

Chief Judge Sandra Lynch meanwhile defended the rehearing denial as a way to speed the case toward the Supreme Court.

The justices took her up on that offer Friday, granting Wurie a writ of certiorari and leave to proceed in forma pauperis.

Per its custom, the court issued no comment on either Wurie's or Riley's case.

It noted with Riley only that the hearing would be limited to whether the cellphone search violated Riley's Fourth Amendment rights.

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