WASHINGTON - The Founding Fathers will meet the selfie generation this week when the Supreme Court dials up the case of a California man incriminated by his smartphone.
Loaded with pictures, some of them imprudent, David Leon Riley's Samsung Instinct was searched by police in 2009 without a warrant. He got busted. Now the justices, who sometimes seem uncomfortable with new technologies, will consider a quintessentially 21st-century problem.
In an unplugged courtroom Tuesday, where television cameras and electronic devices have long been banned, justices must fit data-packed smartphones into the contours of the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The eventual outcome will clarify rules that were written long before phones wised up.
"A modern smartphone," Stanford law Prof. Jeffrey L. Fisher noted in a brief, "is a portal into our most sensitive and confidential affairs. The digital contents of such a device should not be subject to a fishing expedition."
Fisher is representing Riley, the San Diego man whose case will be heard along with a separate flip-phone search challenge filed by a Boston-area native named Brima Wurie. The cases pose potentially far-reaching consequences for police and phone users alike.
Privacy advocates fear that a ruling against Riley and Wurie would render vulnerable the secrets of the 90 percent of U.S. adults who own cellphones, a growing number of which are outfitted like the various iPhone, Samsung or Android models.
"A photograph, short video, letter, list of addresses or other material that could be properly seized from an arrestee's pocket in paper form is not imbued with special First and Fourth Amendment protection simply because it is digitized and carried on a cellphone," the California attorney general's office wrote in a brief.
Riley was pulled over by a San Diego police officer on Aug. 22, 2009, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree, but they characterize him very differently. Fisher called Riley a "college student." California officials called him "a member of a San Diego Blood gang."
Police impounded Riley's Lexus because he was driving with a suspended license, and in a subsequent search found two guns. An officer then scrolled through Riley's unlocked phone, finding video clips of gang initiation fights, pictures of gang signs and clips of an Oldsmobile allegedly used in an earlier gang shooting.
Convicted on charges that included attempted murder, Riley was sentenced to prison for 15 years to life. The 23-year-old is incarcerated at California's Kern Valley State Prison.
In Wurie's case, Boston police lacked a warrant when they checked the call log on his Verizon LG phone after busting him on drug and gun charges. Wurie was convicted in 2009 and is serving a 262-month prison term.
The Riley case may prove the most consequential because it deals directly with the multimedia capacity of modern smartphones. An estimated 56 percent of U.S. adults were using smartphones last year, according to one survey.
"You're talking about a treasure trove of personal information," said Elizabeth B. Wydra, chief counsel of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, "the kind of information that we think of as deeply private."