WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court seemed wary Tuesday of allowing police unbridled freedom to search cellphones found on people they arrest without first getting a warrant.
A key question in two cases argued Tuesday is whether Americans' cellphones, with vast quantities of sensitive records, photographs and communications, are a private realm much like their homes.
"People carry their entire lives on their cellphones," Justice Elena Kagan said.
The court heard arguments in cases involving a drug dealer and a gang member whose convictions turned in part on evidence found on their cellphones.
The justices suggested they might favor limiting warrantless cellphone searches to looking for evidence of the crime on which an arrest is based. Both defendants could lose in such an outcome.
But such a ruling would allow the court to avoid subjecting people arrested for minor crimes to having all the contents of their cellphones open to police inspection.
If police should arrest someone for driving without a seat belt, Justice Antonin Scalia said, "it seems absurd that they should be able to search that person's iPhone."
The Supreme Court has previously ruled that police can empty a suspect's pockets and examine whatever they find to ensure officers' safety and prevent the destruction of evidence. The Obama administration and the state of California, defending the searches, said cellphones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find.
But the defendants in these cases, backed by an array of civil libertarians, librarians and news media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, are increasingly powerful computers that can store troves of sensitive personal information.
The issue is of more than passing concern for many people. More than 90 percent of Americans own at least one cellphone, the Pew Research Center says, and the majority of those are smartphones. More than 12 million people were arrested in the U.S. in 2012, according to FBI statistics.