25 June 2014

Law in Plain English: United States v. Wurie

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogUnited States v. Wurie (see also Riley v. California)

Argument: Apr 29 2014 (Aud.)

Background: Following surveillance of a suspected drug deal, Wurie (who had just parked the car) was arrested by police. At the station, two cells phones (as well as keys and money) were taken from him. After he arrived but before he was booked, one Wurie's cell phones was repeatedly receiving calls from a number identified as "my house" on the external caller ID screen on the front of the phone. The officers were able to see the caller ID screen, and the "my house" label, in plain view. After about five more minutes, the officers opened the phone to look at Wurie's call log. Immediately upon opening the phone, the officers saw a photograph of a young black woman holding a baby, which was set as the phone's "wallpaper." The officers then pressed one button on the phone, which allowed them to access the phone's call log. The call log showed the incoming calls from "my house." The officers pressed one more button to determine the phone number associated with the "my house" caller ID reference. One of the officers typed that phone number into an online white pages directory, which revealed that the address associated with the number was on Silver Street in South Boston, not far from where Wurie had parked his car just before he was arrested. Suspecting that Wurie was a drug dealer, that he was lying about his address, and that he might have drugs hidden at his house, police took Wurie's keys and, with other officers, went to the Silver Street address associated with the "my house" number. One of the mailboxes at that address listed the names Wurie and Cristal. Through the first-floor apartment window, the officers saw a black woman who looked like the woman whose picture appeared on Wurie's cell phone wallpaper and a sleeping child who looked like the child in the picture on Wurie's phone. After obtaining the warrant, the officers seized from the apartment crack cocaine, a firearm, ammunition, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, in cash. Wurie was charged with possessing with intent to distribute and distributing cocaine base and with being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of his cell phone. The district court denied Wurie's motion to suppress; but the First Circuit reversed the denial of Wurie's motion to suppress and vacated his conviction.

Issue: The question before the Court is whether the Fourth Amendment permits the police, without obtaining a warrant, to review the call log of a cellphone found on a person who has been lawfully arrested.

Holding: In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.
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