The California Supreme Court has handed down an important ruling that allows police to search an arrested person’s cellphone without a warrant — a ruling that will allow police access to a wide array of information now kept on modern cellphones.
The California Supreme Court based its decision on U.S. Supreme Court precedent allowing police to seize evidence found with an arrestee when taken into custody. In People v. Diaz, the California justices relied on the exception for searches “incident to arrest” under such cases as United States v. Robinson 414 U.S. 218, 224 (1973). Notably, the prosecutors acknowledged that Diaz had a valid “expectation of privacy” in the information under Katz. However, the court dismisses the importance of the item by analogizing it to clothing:
We hold that the cell phone was “immediately associated with [defendant’s] person” (Chadwick, supra, 433 U.S. at p. 15), and that the warrantless search of the cell phone therefore was valid. As the People explain, the cell phone “was an item [of personal property] on [defendant’s] person at the time of his arrest and during the administrative processing at the police station.” In this regard, it was like the clothing taken from [*14] the defendant in Edwards and the cigarette package taken from the defendant’s coat pocket in Robinson, and it was unlike the footlocker in Chadwick, which was separate from the defendants’ persons and was merely within the “area” of their ” ‘immediate control.’ ” (Chadwick, supra, 433 U.S. at p. 15.) Because the cell phone was immediately associated with defendant’s person, Fazio was “entitled to inspect” its contents without a warrant (Robinson, supra, 414 U.S. at p. 236) at the sheriff’s station 90 minutes after defendant’s arrest, whether or not an exigency existed.
It is certainly true that the Supreme Court has gradually expanded exceptions to the Fourth Amendment that has left more holes than cheese in the protection against unlawful searches and seizures. The majority ruling does follow this trend. However, there is little effort to distinguish this new technology in terms of its implications for privacy. While cellphones are not new, the latest devices are being used for a wide array of business and personal communications and information storage. The dissenting justices noted the range of information on these devices:
the amount and type of personal and business information that can be stored on a mobile phone, smartphone or handheld computer, and would become subject to delayed warrantless search under the majority holding, dwarfs that which can be carried on the person in a spatial container. 8 As one federal district court observed in suppressing the fruits of a mobile phone search, “modern cellular phones have the capacity for storing immense amounts of private information. Unlike pagers or address books, modern cell phones record incoming and outgoing calls, and can also contain address books, calendars, voice and text messages, email, video and pictures. Individuals can store highly personal information on their cell phones, and can record their most private thoughts and conversations on their cell phones through email and text, voice and instant messages.” (United States v. Park (N.D.Cal., May 23, 2007, No. CR 05-375 SI) 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40596, *21-*22, fn. omitted.) Smartphones, as we have seen, have even greater information storage capacities.
Justice Moreno concludes that
The majority’s holding, however, goes much further, apparently allowing police carte blanche, with no showing of exigency, to rummage at leisure through the wealth of personal and business information that can be carried on a mobile phone or handheld computer merely because the device was taken from an arrestee’s person. The majority thus sanctions a highly intrusive and unjustified type of search, one meeting neither the warrant requirement nor the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
I share those concerns. All that the dissenting justices wanted was for police to seek a simple warrant before searching such information. These warrants can be obtained literally in a matter of minutes in some circumstances but can certainly be secured in a short time. Unfortunately, this is not the Supreme Court that I would want to review this case. The Court has left the fourth amendment in tatters and this ruling is the natural extension of that trend. While the Framers wanted to require warrants for searches and seizures, the Court now allows the vast majority of searches and seizures to occur without warrants. As a result, the California Supreme Court would allow police to open cellphone files — the modern equivalent of letter and personal messages. For people insisting that the text of the Constitution must control their interpretations, it takes a lot to ignore the language of the fourth amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.