Cell Phone Contents Not Searchable Without Warrant, Florida Appeals Court Holds

Generally, law enforcement officials must get a warrant before they conduct a search of someone’s residence or personal belongings, unless certain exceptions apply. Both state and federal courts have recently seen an increase in the number of cases concerning the search of an individual’s cell phone, tablet, or other electronic device.

In a recent Florida District Court of Appeal opinion, the Third District held that the search of a defendant’s cell phone was unauthorized by law.   In Viervens Saint-Hilaire v. The State of Florida, the appeals court discussed recent laws regarding the search and seizure of cell phones during the lawful arrest of a criminal suspect.

In the underlying case, the defendant had been stopped by police for an alleged traffic violation. During the course of the stop, a police officer observed that the defendant possessed a number of suspicious credit cards in his wallet. The defendant was then arrested and subjected to a pat-down search. At that point, a police officer searched the digital contents of the defendant’s cell phone and discovered multiple names and social security numbers. After the defendant was charged with possession of identification information with the intent to defraud, he made a motion to suppress the evidence found on his cell phone.

The trial court refused to suppress the information obtained from the cell phone, holding that the search was valid because it was incident to a lawful arrest. The defendant appealed the trial court’s decision, and the Third District reviewed the facts of the case and the law regarding cell phone searches.

In accordance with the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Riley v. California, the Florida appellate court concluded that law enforcement’s search of the defendant’s cell phone was illegal. The court also noted that Florida legal precedent has prohibited a warrantless cell phone search that accompanied a lawful arrest, unless there is a reasonable belief that the cell phone contains evidence of a crime. In Smallwood v. State, the Florida Supreme Court rejected an exception to the search warrant requirement when it comes to cell phones because there is no way in which a cell phone could be used as a weapon or that digital information could be destroyed after it has been removed from an arrestee’s possession. The Smallwood court held that a cell phone may be removed from possession, but that a warrant must be obtained before any search of the contents of the phone.

The Third District held likewise. In the Saint-Hilaire case, there was no evidence that the phone could endanger any person, or that the information contained in the cell phone would be destroyed. The appeals court held, therefore, that police officers were required to get a search warrant prior to searching the defendant’s phone.

The Florida court’s ruling mirrored the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Riley that a search warrant must be obtained prior to searching an individual’s cell phone, even if it has been seized concurrently with an arrest. Cell phones are personal possessions, but they differ in characteristics from other objects that may be carried by the average person, the Riley court held. Because of the vast amounts of information they can store, there are inherent privacy interests at stake. Therefore, while a cell phone may be subject to search by law enforcement, a search cannot take place before complying with all the applicable requirements for a warrant.

If you face criminal charges in or around Naples, Fort Meyers, Cape Coral, or other communities in Lee and Collier Counties, do not delay in obtaining qualified legal counsel. The Southwest Florida criminal law attorneys at Lusk, Drasites & Tolisano have considerable experience representing Florida individuals facing a wide range of criminal charges. Contact us or call toll-free at (800) 238-7442 to discuss your case.

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