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Cellphone searches unnerve liberal justices

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By McClatchy Newspapers
Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 8:15 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Warrantless smartphone searches worried Supreme Court justices on Tuesday, with several challenging law enforcement intrusions on privacy.

In a high-tech case that goes well beyond its San Diego origins, liberal justices in particular seemed poised to limit what police may do with smartphones taken during arrests.

“Most people now do carry their lives on cellphones, and that will only grow every single year as, you know, young people take over the world,” Justice Elena Kagan said.

At the same time, pointed questions from conservative justices and persistent probings by Justice Anthony Kennedy, frequently a swing vote, hinted at a difficult split decision ahead.

“Smartphones do present difficult problems,” said Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative who often sides with law enforcement.

The California smartphone case heard on Tuesday, along with a case involving a Massachusetts cellphone, brought justices grappling with devices that are banned from the courtroom.

An estimated 91 percent of adults own cellphones, and 56 percent of adults were using smartphones last year, according to surveys.

“With digital cameras, people take endless photos, and it spans their entire life,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted. “A GPS can follow people in a way that prior following by police officers in cars didn't permit.”

The California smartphone case started when a San Diego police officer pulled over David Leon Riley on Aug. 22, 2009. Police impounded Riley's Lexus because he had been driving with a suspended license, and in a subsequent search, they found two guns.

A police officer checked Riley's unlocked Samsung Instinct phone and found video clips of gang initiation fights, pictures of gang signs and clips of a red Oldsmobile allegedly used in a gang shooting.

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