Supreme Court to address warrantless electronic device searches

The Supreme Court on Tuesday will take on the digital-age controversy over search and seizure of smartphones and other devices. In two cases coming before the court, warrantless searches of an electronic device not only provided the basis for criminal prosecutions but also strayed from the original reason for the arrests in question. President Obama’s administration and prosecutors from states across the country have lobbied for police officers to be able to search arrestees’ gadgets without a warrant.

Two Supreme Court cases about police searches of cellphones without warrants present vastly different views of the ubiquitous device. Is it a critical tool for a criminal or is it an American’s virtual home? How the justices answer that question could determine the outcome of the cases being argued Tuesday. A drug dealer and a gang member want the court to rule that the searches of their cellphones after their arrest violated their right to privacy in the digital age. The Obama administration and California, defending the searches, say cellphones are no different from anything else a person may be carrying when arrested. Police may search those items without a warrant under a line of high court cases reaching back 40 years. What’s more, said Donald Verrilli Jr., the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, ‘‘Cellphones are now critical tools in the commission of crimes.’’

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