Search and Seizure Question Arises From Cell Phone Wallpaper

Cell phones and the information they contain have been a hot topic in criminal law. Many cases have held that information and photos on a cell phone are admissible in court, but the subtle differences from case to case create new questions in the constitutional protections against search and seizure of cell phone information.

Robbery at Gas Station

A new case involves the viewing of information on a cellphone at the time of arrest. The case involves a man who was robbed at gunpoint at a gas station. According to the police, some men approached the victim, asked him if he wanted to buy weed, and when he refused, robbed him at gunpoint. The gas station attendant, who witnessed the incident, called 911 although he was not in a position to see the face of the man holding the gun. The defendants got away, stealing the victim’s car.

As coincidence would have it, the next day the victim happened to see the robbers’ car and the robbers themselves at a nearby barber shop, and called the police. The police followed the defendants and pulled over the car. When they did, they observed marijuana inside of it. The police arrested the defendants and seized the property, including a cell phone.

Upon taking the phone, the officer opened it, and observed that the phone’s “wallpaper” was a picture of the robbery victim’s stolen car.

Trial and Appeal Involve Wallpaper Photo

At trial, the defendant claimed that he was at the mall the night of the robbery, but the pictures on his phone of the stolen car were admitted as evidence at trial. The defendant was found guilty.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the officer was in violation of the Fourth Amendment when he searched the cell phone, and that the pictures of the car never should have been admitted as evidence.

Although a search and seizure requires a warrant, the court pointed out that searches that are incident to arrests are permissible in order to avoid evidence from being destroyed and to protect officers. The search can only be of the arrestee and “his immediate person,” in other words, the objects around him that are readily available and accessible. For example, if an arrestee could reach a glove compartment, it may be searched by an arresting officer. Even objects that don’t present an immediate threat–a cigarette box or a cell phone–can be searched to make sure they don’t present any danger.

Plain View Doctrine

The problem for the defendant in this case was that the picture was on his cellphone wallpaper, putting it in “plain view” of the arresting officer as he was conducting his otherwise lawful search. An officer may open a phone to power it off and make sure it is not a danger. Because opening it is permissible, so is anything that readily appears such as a picture on the wallpaper.

The court here allowed the evidence in. The decision doesn’t mean that an officer may scroll through cell phone data at will during a routine stop, but because the phone in this case was a flip phone that required opening, the officer was able to view the wallpaper, that on a smartphone would require a password to access.

Constitutional rights can be complex and hinge on subtle details. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.