The California Supreme Court recently ruled that law enforcement officers are authorized to conduct a warrantless search of cell phones obtained from a defendant after arrest. The Court granted review to determine whether the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution was violated when approximately 90 minutes after lawfully arresting a suspect and transporting him to a detention facility, the police conducted a warrantless search of the text message folder of a cell phone they took from his person. The court held that such a search was valid as being incident to a lawful custodial arrest. In my opinion, dissenting Justices Werdegar and Moreno are correct in writing that this opinion is just wrong as a matter of federal law.
The Court’s opinion involved a Motorola cell phone found in the sweatshirt pocket of a man arrested for selling ecstasy to a police informant. After being transported to a sheriff’s station, officers looked at the cell phone text message folder and discovered a message that said “6 4 80,” which meant six pills for $80. Once the message was shown to the defendant, he admitted participating in the sale of an illegal drug. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence and his statements arguing that the warrantless search of the cell phone violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant.
The Court disagreed, however, and concluded that his warrantless search was permitted by one of the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, namely, a search incident to a lawful arrest. This exception has traditionally been justified by the reasonableness of searching for weapons, instruments of escape, and evidence of a crime when a person is lawfully detained and taken into custody. The Court found that a cell phone, like a cigarette package or clothing, was an article of personal property immediately associated with such an individual. As a result, officers were entitled to inspect its contents without a warrant at the sheriff’s station 90 minutes after defendant’s arrest.
A particular troubling aspect about this decision is the fact that the Court specifically declined to distinguish cell phones from other items of personal property on the ground that they could contain quantities of personal data far beyond what is available by examining a piece of clothing, a wallet, or a crumpled cigarette box found in an arrestee’s sweatshirt. Navigating through a cell phone seized from the accused may easily reveal emails, bank accounts, and other sensitive information that is usually accessible only by means of a search warrant. Since the Court’s decision does not distinguish the character of the item seized, it is now quite possible for law enforcement use this opinion as a justification to search laptop computers and other electronic data storage devices found on or near a person’s body at the time of the arrest without a warrant.
This office handles all types of matters related to the Fourth Amendment issues of searches and seizures in San Diego County. For a free consultation, contact us at [email protected].
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