Maryland High Court Holds Police May Conduct Warrantless Searches Of Cell Phones Belonging To Arrestees

Earlier this year, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a controversial opinion in the case of Sinclair v. State of Maryland, holding that a police officer who has lawfully arrested an individual may conduct a search of that individual’s cellular phone under an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s general requirement that law enforcement obtain a warrant prior to conducting any search.

In Sinclair, the defendant, Ronald Sinclair, was accused of participating in a carjacking at a gas station in April of 2010. The day after the carjacking, the victim located his stolen car at a local shopping mall and notified the Prince George’s County Police Department. The victim subsequently spotted Sinclair, whom the victim recognized as the carjacker, getting into a vehicle and driving away. The victim informed the police of Sinclair’s activities and the police stopped the vehicle in which Sinclair was a passenger.

After police stopped the car, the passengers were ordered to sit on a curb. At some point during the stop, the victim arrived and identified Sinclair as the individual that had carjacked him. Sinclair was arrested, and a cell phone was seized from his person. Approximately five minutes after the arrest, one of the officers examined Sinclair’s cell phone, discovering that the screensaver was a photograph of automobile rims that were identical to the rims on the victim’s stolen vehicle.

Prior to trial, Sinclair filed a motion in limine, asking the court to exclude the photographs of the rims from trial, arguing that the officer’s viewing of the photos constituted a warrantless search, thereby violating Sinclair’s Fourth Amendment “right against unreasonable searches and seizures.” A motion in limine is a written motion requesting that the judge rule that certain testimony regarding evidence or information excluded from trial.

The Trial Court denied Sinclair’s motion, and, following a jury trial at which the photographs were admitted as evidence, Sinclair was found guilty of several charges, including carjacking and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony or crime of violence, and possession of cocaine.

On appeal, the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of Sinclair’s motion, recognizing that, although warrantless searches are said to be “per se unreasonable” and generally applicable to cell phones, an exception to the warrant requirement applied in Sinclair’s case to validate the search of his phone. Specifically, the Court held that the search incident to a lawful arrest exception to the warrant requirement applied.

In applying this exception, the Court opined that, due to the “volatile nature” of cell phone information, which could be automatically deleted, and the “manifest need…to preserve evidence,” the limited and immediate search of Sinclair’s cell phone was a “valid search incident to arrest.”

The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending the Constitutional rights of individuals that have been charged with a crime. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.