U.S. Supreme Court hears local case on cellphone searches

SAN DIEGO - The U.S. Supreme Court heard a local case Tuesday involving this question: Can police search your cellphone without a warrant?

For many, cellphones are the filing cabinet of our lives, from photos and videos, to emails.

10News talked to local attorney Pat Ford after his first-ever appearance before the high court.

"It's exhausting to go through it, but it's exhilarating at the same time," said Ford.

Ford's team argued police need a warrant to look through a cellphone if someone is under arrest.

Ford said his client, David Riley, had his cellphone searched, as several photos and videos linked him to a gang member involved in a local shooting. Ford said that led to a conviction despite no direct evidence linking Riley to the shooting.

On the other side, the state of California said that search was justified because of this: "The court has always said if you're arrested, police can look through everything you have. Why is a cellphone different?" said Thomas Jefferson Law School associate professor Alex Kreit.

But Kreit said the court dropped hints it was not buying that argument because cellphones hold so much private data.

For anyone pulled over for a seatbelt violation, Justice Antonin Scalia commented that allowing police to search their iPhone seems "absurd."

Kreit said the court could issue a so-called split decision, allowing some cellphone searches and not allowing others.

"They could say you can search for certain types of offenses and they could look for evidence of that crime on the phone. They could say police can look at a phone for 20 minutes without a warrant. They could say police could look for certain apps or certain things without a warrant," said Kreit.

Government lawyers also warned criminals could remotely wipe out a cellphone's data if not immediately searched.

Riley's lawyers pointed out that is conjecture and there are no real-life examples of that happening.

An overwhelming number of San Diegans don't think law enforcement should be allowed to search a cellphone without a warrant.

According to a scientific 10News/U-T San Diego poll, 81 percent surveyed said no, while only 14 percent said yes.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue its opinion in mid-to-late June.

"We were prepared and I felt like we made the best argument we could, so we're hopeful at this point," said Ford.

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