The Florida Supreme Court held this month, that once a cell phone is seized from a suspect who is in custody, the police need a search warrant to view the contents on the phone.
Tyrone Smallwood was a arrested for a robbery of a convenience store. While he wore a mask the cashier recognized his voice as that of a regular customer. At the time of his arrest police seized his cell phone. After Smallwood was arrested and placed in a police car, the arresting officer looked at pictures found on the phone. Among the pictures was one of Smallwood with a gun. Others showed him and his girlfriend with bundles of money simillar to those taken in the robbery. His attorney objected to the pictures being used at trial on Fourth Amendment grounds. But the judge denied the motion. The pictures were introduced at trial and Smallwood was convicted.
On appeal he again argued that the pictures in the phone were viewed in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that a search warrant was necessary to view pictures and data on a cell phone. The United States Supreme Court has previously ruled in
The state Supreme Court agreed and reversed the conviction. The Court pointed to the United States Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. G in which the Supreme Court ruled that if there is not probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime is in a vehicle, a search warrant is needed to search an automobile pursuant to a legal arrest unless the suspect is still in the car. The warrant exception for a warrantless search concurrent with a lawful arrest is based upon two criteria. First, it allows the officer to search for weapons which might be used to injure the officer or others. Second, it prevents the suspect from destroying evidence. Once Smallwood was confined in the police car and no longer within reach of his phone which was in police custody there was no danger that he would use the phone as a weapon or that he would attempt to destroy evidence on the phone. As a result there was no basis under the search pursuant to a legal arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment Warrant Clause to search the contents of the phone without obtaining a warrant first.
The Court found that while there was considerable evidence that Smallwood committed the robbery that, a “reasonable possibility [exists] that the improperly admitted photos. . . contributed to his conviction” and remanded the case for a new trial.
As the court made clear, one of the issues in the case involves the changing role of technology in the world. Prior decisions generally found that if an item was legally found in the search of a vehicle or in a search pursuant to a legal arrest officers could open it up and search the contents. The attorney general in Smallwood argued that the search of the contents of a smart phone was no different than the search of the contents of a container. However, the Florida Supreme Court refused to see it that way. It pointed out that a cell phone was a computer and people kept their most private information on the phone. As a result it refused to follow prior “container” decisions of its own Court, the United States Supreme Court and other judicial bodies. We can expect more decisions in the future by various judicial bodies struggling with attempting to interpret technological questions in light of a Federal Constitution that was written in the Eighteenth Century.