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California High Court Allows Cell Phone Search After Arrest

Posted on in Criminal Defense

The California Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that allows law enforcement to search the texts and other data stored on a cell phone without a warrant after an arrest. Cell phones are becoming more and more sophisticated as technology advances. The data stored on a cell phone may be free game to law enforcement after an arrest under the ruling.

The case stems from a 2007 Ventura County arrest. Police arrested the defendant in the case on suspicion of committing a California drug crime. After arresting the man, police found a cell phone that the defendant was carrying. Roughly 90 minutes after the arrest, an officer searched through text messages stored on the cell phone and found a text message that allegedly incriminated the defendant.

The message reportedly read "6 4 80." Police alleged the message related to the sale of six ecstasy pills for $80. The man later confessed to the drug deal. The defendant challenged the admissibility of the evidence in court on the basis that the warrantless search was illegal.

The California Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the search was constitutionally valid as a search incident to arrest. The ruling came in a 5 to 2 split decision. The majority reportedly based its ruling on United States Supreme Court precedent from the 1970s. The majority ruled that a cell phone is similar to personal items found on a suspect, such as a crumpled cigarette pack involved in one of the 1970s decisions, allowing for a warrantless search.

The dissent writes that the 1970s cases should not extend to a modern technological device.

The issue has garnered the opposite decision in at least two other jurisdictions. A federal judge ruled in 2007 that a cell phone search after an arrest required a warrant to pass constitutional muster. The Ohio Supreme Court also found the warrantless search of a cell phone violates the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches.

Source: Time, "Should Cell Phone Searches Without A Warrant Be Legal?," Michelle Castillo 5 Jan 2011

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