Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Criminal Procedure - Fourth Amendment - Florida Supreme Court Holds That Cell Phone Data Is Not Subject to the Search Incident-to-Arrest Exception

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Criminal Procedure - Fourth Amendment - Florida Supreme Court Holds That Cell Phone Data Is Not Subject to the Search Incident-to-Arrest Exception

Article excerpt

CRIMINAL PROCEDURE--FOURTH AMENDMENT--FLORIDA SUPREME COURT HOLDS THAT CELL PHONE DATA IS NOT SUBJECT TO THE SEARCH INCIDENT-TO-ARREST EXCEPTION.--Smallwood v. State, 113 So. 3d 724 (Fla. 2013).

Warrants are central to the legitimacy of the American legal system, and the Supreme Court has found that warrantless searches, as a rule, are prohibited under the Fourth Amendment unless they fall into one of several "specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." (1) The search-incident-to-arrest exception allows police to search arrestees and their immediate surroundings, typically for weapons or evidence that could be destroyed. (2) The Court has spent the last fifty years determining, fact pattern by fact pattern, whether particular searches are permissible under the search-incident-to-arrest exception. (3) Whether cell phones on an arrestee's person can be searched without a warrant has been one area of particularly drastic lower court divergence (4) and Supreme Court silence. (5) Recently, the Supreme Court of Florida joined this debate. In Smallwood v. State, (6) the court held that the Fourth Amendment prohibits police from warrantlessly searching the contents of a person's cell phone incident to a lawful arrest. (7) The court correctly adduced that cell phones represent a different kind of object from a simple container, but its ultimate holding relied on overly broad doctrinal analysis rather than any feature specific to cell phones. The court unnecessarily reinterpreted Fourth Amendment doctrine when it should have created a narrow, bright-line exception for cell phones within existing precedent.

On February 4, 2008, Cedric Smallwood was arrested as a suspect in an armed robbery. (8) While Smallwood was locked in a police vehicle, an officer opened and searched Smallwood's cell phone, finding five images of Smallwood displaying jewelry, large amounts of money, and a handgun matching a description of the one used by the robber. (9) Smallwood filed a motion to suppress the photographs as fruits of an unconstitutional search. (10) The trial court denied the motion, and a jury found Smallwood guilty of armed robbery and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The court sentenced him to sixty-five years in prison with a thirteen-year mandatory minimum. (11)

Florida's First District Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction. (12) Writing for the court, judge Wolf (13) held that United States v. Robinson (14) was controlling precedent and that searching cell phones incident to arrest does not violate the Fourth Amendment. (15) The court found that the United States Supreme Court viewed Robinson as establishing a "bright-line rule" allowing officers "to conduct a full field search as incident to an arrest," which would include cell phones. (16) The court reached this holding reluctantly, however, opining that the Robinson Court could not have intended to allow warrantless searches of "the nearly infinite wealth of personal information" on cell phones. (17)

The Supreme Court of Florida quashed the First District Court of Appeal's decision and remanded. (18) The court's holding had two components, first rejecting Robinson's application and only then determining which precedent applied. (19) Writing for the majority, justice Lewis (20) determined that "Robinson, which governed the search of a static, non-interactive container, cannot be deemed analogous to the search of a modern electronic device cell phone." (21) The court began by noting the technological progress made since 1973, when Robinson was decided: cell phones did not exist then, much less today's "interactive, computer-like devices" (22) that can access "[v]ast amounts of private, personal information." (23) Noting that a sizeable percentage of the population uses cell phones for all remote communication, scheduling, and banking, the court found that "[t]he cell phones of today have a greater capacity not just in the quantity of information stored, but also in the quality of information stored. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.