“A cell phone is not like a pair of pants or a shoe.” Now there’s a simple, but elegant sentence; it’s the essence of straight-forward but it also completely sums up the facts, law, and holding of this case.

Facts: Anthony Granville was arrested for a Class C offense of causing a disturbance on a school bus. When he was arrested and booked into jail, his cell phone was taken from him and placed in the jail property room. Later that day, the school cop got a tip that the day before he was arrested, Granville took a picture of another student urinating in the boy’s bathroom. The officer went to the jail, retrieved the phone, turned it on, and examined it’s contents, making a copy of the photograph in question. Granville’s lawyer filed a motion to suppress the photograph, arguing the police should’ve gotten a warrant first. The trial court agreed and granted the motion. The state appealed and the court of appeals affirmed the trial court, also holding that the police should’ve gotten a warrant. Now the state appeals to the Court of Criminal Appeals to weigh in and establish the final word on this issue.

This opinion is very well-written, so I’ll let Judge Cochran’s words speak for themselves.

On what the state’s argument was:

According to the [state], when a citizen is arrested for any offense, such as failing to wear a seat belt, everything that the person possessed at the time of that arrest – purse, briefcase, laptop computer, cell phone, medical records, IRS returns, trade secret information – is subject to a warrantless search because all of that citizen’s privacy interests have completely disappeared. We cannot agree with this reasoning.

The state then goes on to cite previous case law that allowed the police to seize and test a jailed inmate’s clothing (specifically his pants). Judge Cochran didn’t follow that logic:

There is a general doctrine concerning privacy interests in clothing, but clothing does not contain private banking or medical information and records; it does not contain highly personal emails, texts, photographs, videos, or access to a wide variety of other data about the individual citizen, his friends and family. Searching a person’s cell phone is like searching his home desk, computer, bank vault, and medicine cabinet all at once.

So what can police do?

…here, the officers could have reasonably inspected the outside of appellant’s cell phone; they could’ve tested it for fingerprints or DNA material because portions of the cell phone are routinely exposed to the public. But we do not think that a citizen, including appellant, has lost his expectation of privacy in the contents of his cell phone merely because he is been arrested and his cell phone is in the custody of police for safekeeping.

Holding: a citizen doesn’t lose his reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of his cell phone merely because it’s being stored in a jail property room. An officer can seize an inmate’s phone and held it while he seeks a search warrant, but, even with probable cause, he can not activate and search the contents of the phone without a warrant.

Nicely done. It’s not every day the 4th amendment is tested by the state and comes out without a big chunk of it missing.

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