TODAY   |  April 29, 2014

Should police be able to search your cellphone?

A key issue when it comes to police is being taken up by the Supreme Court on Tuesday: how much freedom an officer has to search cellphones. NBC justice correspondent Pete Williams reports.

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>>> should police be able to search your cell phone ? that's the hot button issue being taken up by the u.s. supreme court today. pete williams has the story. pete, good morning.

>> reporter: savannah, good morning to you. here's the question. when the police arrest someone from a serious crime to not wearing a seat belt , can they rummage through that person's cell phone ? or do they first need to ask a judge for a search warrant ? cell phones have become a powerful tool for criminals. widely used to arrange drug deals, and by gang members to communicate by texting. that's why the obama administration says police should have as much latitude to search phones without a warrant when making an arrest as they do now to examine such personal effects as purses and wallets. on the other hand, police started going through the cell phone of robert westhort, an advocate for the homeless, after he was arrested for pitching a tent in the san francisco plaza two years ago during a protest. he says his phone contained embarrassing messages.

>> i had said something to a friend that was a fairly uncharitable comment about a politician. and it was a really chilling experience for me to know that sfpd now had my cell phone .

>> reporter: nearly 90% of american adults have some kind of cell phone . 2/3 have a smart phone .

>> everything. everything i own is on the cell phone . my contacts. my calendar. e-mail messages. everything.

>> reporter: and more than 13 million people are arrested in the u.s. each year, most of them never charged with a crime. privacy advocates say smart phones can hold so much personal information , from medical records to intimate pictures, that the police must have a warrant before they snoop.

>> you're now into the realm of far more than any person could ever carry. you're in the person's home, the person's office, the person's doctor's office, all at once.

>> reporter: so the justices will decide whether cell phones merely contain more of what the police can already see without a warrant, or so much more that the police should have to get a search warrant because they're in a class by themselves. back to you all in new york.

>> that's going to be a fascinating one. pete williams at the court for us. thank you.