The Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami recently ruled that warrantless searches of cell phones are illegal, even when they are incident to a lawful arrest.
Generally, when a person is lawfully placed under arrest, police are legally allowed to search the person without a warrant in order to locate and remove any weapons and to seize any evidence on the person’s body or within their immediate control to prevent concealment or destruction of the evidence. This is commonly referred to as a “search incident to arrest.”
In the case of Saint-Hilaire v. State of Florida, the defendant was stopped by a police officer for a routine traffic infraction. During their interaction, the officer noticed that the defendant’s wallet contained multiple nearly identical debit cards. The defendant allegedly consented to a search of his wallet. The officer discovered that the coding on one of the cards did not match the name on the front, and then placed the defendant under arrest. At that point, the officer patted down the defendant, found his cell phone, and searched it. The search of the cell phone allegedly revealed a list of multiple names and security numbers. The defendant was ultimately charged with several counts of possession of personal identification information with intent to defraud. Possession of personal identification with intent to defraud (found in Florida Statute 817.568) is a third degree felony in the State of Florida, punishable by up to five (5) years in Florida State Prison for each count, in addition to fines.
The defendant filed a Motion to Suppress, arguing that the evidence found on his cell phone should be thrown out because it was obtained as a result of an unlawful, warrantless search by the police officer. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, and he appealed the case.
The appellate court agreed with the defendant and found that the trial court should have thrown out the evidence. The appellate court stated that the search of a cell phone goes beyond the bounds of a legal search incident to a lawful arrest when there is no evidence that the officer had a reasonable belief that the cell phone contained evidence of a crime. The officer was legally allowed to seize (or take) the phone, but he was not allowed to search it. If the officer wanted to search the phone, the lawful method should have been for him to obtain a warrant.
It is important to note that the State Attorney’s office in that case could still go forward with charges by using the evidence from the defendant’s wallet. If the defendant consented to the search of his wallet, any evidence found in his wallet was lawfully obtained.
Consenting to a search is never a good idea. The only reason police officers ask to search someone is because they want to obtain more evidence against that person to place them under arrest. If the police had enough evidence to arrest the person, they would arrest them. Unfortunately, many people do not know their rights. When stopped by police officers, many people feel intimidated and simply agree to whatever the officer asks, hoping that doing so will make the encounter easier. However, agreeing to searches and answering questions only makes the encounter easier for the police – it gives them more evidence to arrest without even having to apply for a warrant.
Anyone who has questions about their rights regarding searches, consent, and police investigations in Palm Beach County should contact a Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer.
Casey Reiter is an associate attorney at Stuart R. Manoff & Associates, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, practicing in the areas of Criminal Defense and Marital Law.