Yesterday, the Supreme Court considered what the Fourth Amendment requires when the police want to search an arrestee’s cell phone. The outcome will depend on how the Court applies an old rule to new technology—a challenge that is likely to recur in the years to come as smartphones, cloud computing and tools like license plate readers change both the way we store information and the government’s ability to collect and analyze it.
Before the police can search your home or property, they need a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement. One well-established exception is the so-called “search incident to lawful arrest” doctrine. This rule says that the police can search an arrestee without a warrant, simply on the basis of the arrest. The rationale for this exception is that an arrestee might have a weapon on them or try to destroy evidence after they’re arrested. Plus, because an arrestee is being taken into custody, she has a reduced expectation of privacy.
Until recently, this exception was relatively uncontroversial. It meant that the police could look through an arrestee’s pockets, wallet or purse for weapons, drugs or other evidence—something they would be very likely to do anyway while booking the person back at the station.
But how should this rule apply now that we carry our “entire lives on cell phones,” as Justice Kagan put it during oral argument? Should the government be able to rummage through the cell phone of every single person they arrest for hours or days without a warrant? Or, should a different rule apply to phones?
Last night, the Oklahoma execution of Clayton D. Lockett was “halted when the prisoner, began to writhe and gasp” in a horrific scene, which had onlookers witnessing “agonizing suffocation and pain.” Lockett suffered a fatal heart attack after the botched lethal injection attempt which used untested compounded drugs. Erik Eckholm at The New York Times reports on this troubling story while Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic highlights its grave implications. According to Cohen, “what happened last night was the inevitable result of a breakdown in government in Oklahoma, where frustration at the continuing delay in the resolution of Lockett's case blinded state officials to the basic requirements of due process. From these officials' perspectives, the fight over this man's fate seemed to be personal, rather than a dispassionate exercise in bureaucracy.”
Peter Williams at NBC News reports on yesterday’s Supreme Court oral argument in Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, suggesting that “the court could allow police to search phones for evidence in serious crimes but not to rummage through them in minor ones.”
Writing for Reuters, Lawrence Hurley explains why the high court handed “President Obama a victory on Tuesday by upholding a federal environmental regulation requiring some states to limit pollution that contributes to unhealthy air in neighboring states.”
At Balkinization, David Fontana discusses Bruce Ackmerman’s “We the People” trilogy and how understanding “where American constitutional change comes from” can help us “better understand many unique features of constitutional order [in] the United States.”
A week after the Oklahoma Supreme Court buckled under political pressure, state officials pushed ahead with a controversial execution method to be used on two death row inmates; one of those inmates suffered a grisly death by heart attack after the lethal injection failed to work effectively. After the botched execution of Clayton D. Lockett, detailed in this piece by The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen, state officials temporarily halted the second planned execution.
ACS President Caroline Fredrickson blasted Oklahoma state lawmakers for interfering with the judicial process. Fredrickson said:
One of the fundamental tenets of our democracy, an independent court system that provides checks and balances on the other branches of government, was the victim of a politically motivated execution leading directly to this tragedy tonight. Had the Oklahoma Supreme Court been allowed to render an impartial ruling absent the governor's coercion and political pressure, the state would not have botched today's execution because it never would have taken place. This is sad commentary on the state of fair courts in Oklahoma.
A week ago, the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed the execution of two convicts so that the justices could evaluate the legality of the state's injection secrecy law. Just two days later, after Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin claimed she would not recognize an issue ordered by the state Supreme Court and members of the legislature threatened to recall the justices supporting a stay of execution, the Oklahoma high court bowed to pressure and said the executions could proceed.
The nationwide trend of politicizing state courts has accelerated in recent months, as large-spending outside groups have poured huge sums into previously apolitical state Supreme Court races. Now that politicization has cost a life.
Earlier this morning, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in two cases which raise the question of whether or not police can search confiscated cellphones of arrestees without a warrant. In both cases, the defendants argued that the information obtained from their cell phones by police was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. NPR’s Nina Totenberg discusses Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court denied cert in Jackson v. Louisiana, a case that examined whether or not a non-unanimous jury verdict violates the Sixth Amendment. At CAC’s Text & History Blog, Brianne Gorod explains why the high court’s failure in taking the case “is not only tragic, it’s inexplicable.”
Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit heard arguments concerning whether a state law can close the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. Writing for MSNBC, Irin Carmon asserts that “what’s at stake stretches far beyond Mississippi.”
At Just Security, Marty Lederman explains why the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s Directive 119, which “prohibits employees of the Intelligence Community from unauthorized ‘contacts’ with the media about intelligence ‘sources’ ” isn’t a “clear-cut matter.”
Missouri recently executed its fourth inmate this year, providing a federal appellate court judge to once again raise disconcerting aspects about the state’s process of carrying out those executions. Earlier this year, The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen noted that on more than one occasion Missouri had carried out executions of inmates before the appeals process had run its course. State officials have also come under criticism for continually shrouding its means of executing inmates in secrecy.
The latest inmate to be executed, William Rousan, also raised constitutional concerns about Missouri’s execution process before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Eight Circuit. The entire Eighth Circuit declined Rousan’s appeal. But Circuit Judge Kermit E. Bye lodged a dissent blasting the Court for not hearing the appeal, noting the “viable constitutional claims” raised by Rousan. Circuit Judges Diana Murphy and Jane Kelly joined Bye’s dissent.
This was not the first time that Judge Bye raised concerns about Missouri’s procedure for executing inmates. In a fall 2013 case, Bye said Missouri has a “well-documented history of attempting to execute death row inmates before the federal courts can determine the constitutionality of the executions." In another death row appeals case, Bye noted the opaque nature of the state’s drugs used to kill the inmates was not helpful in deciding constitutional challenges.
In his April 23 dissent in the most recent case, Judge Bye again noted the state’s ongoing work to “frustrate the efforts of inmates such as Rousan to investigate the method of execution the State plans to use to end their lives. Missouri shields these shadow pharmacies – and itself – behind the hangman’s cloak by refusing to disclose pertinent information to the inmates.”
He continued, “So long as Missouri insists on carrying out executions, it is fundamentally important the State is sufficiently transparent about its protocol to allow adequate review of the constitutionality of its chosen method.”