Supreme Court Grants Cert in Both Cell-Phone Search Cases

Today the Supreme Court agreed to hear both of the pending cell-phone search cases; as explained here, one case, Wurie, involves an old-style flip-phone, and the second, Riley, involves a modern smart phone. The Court modified the Questions Presented in Riley to match that in Wurie, so the question presented in both is “[w]hether evidence admitted at petitioner’s trial was obtained in a search of petitioner’s cell phone that violated petitioner’s Fourth Amendment rights.”

Why did the Court take both cases instead of just picking one? One reason may be that Riley has more representative facts but Wurie lets the United States play a larger role: As petitioner, DOJ can file a full length merits brief, a reply brief, and get 30 minutes of oral argument, instead of filing an amicus brief and getting the expected 10 minutes of the state’s oral argument time. Alternatively, perhaps the Justices figured that the issue can arise with many different facts, and they figured taking two cases lets them look at the broader issue (see, for example, Miranda v. Arizona). It’s hard to say.

Either way, these cases should be really important and very fun to watch. I expect them to be the first of many computer search-and-seizure cases the Supreme Court will hear over the next few decades. As I wrote in this short essay on the issue raised by Wurie and Riley, “The computer will be to the 21st century Fourth Amendment what the automobile was to the 20th century Fourth Amendment. In both cases, transformative technologies justify technology-specific rules.” The process of engaging in equilibrium-adjustment for the computer world is likely to occupy the Justices for a long time, and my bet is on it leading to a new criminal procedure with many computer-specific rules.