Flip Phones, Text Messages, and the Constitution

Recently we considered the issue of how the constitution interplays with officers’ ability to search and seize cell phones. The law is ever changing and creates fascinating constitutional questions, so this week, we will look at another case involving the same topic, but with a different angle.

Text Message Leads to Conviction

The case involves an officer who testified that he received information about a drug deal from an informant. When he arrived at the scene, the officer observed a golf cart near a Nissan, a man standing between them, and the Defendant in the case sitting in the passenger seat of the Nissan.

The officer asked the men if they had any drugs on them. A man said he had a “bowl” on him, and the officer searched him. The Defendant, still in the car, said that he had pills, which the officer believed were oxycodone. The Defendant told the officer he had a prescription for them.

The officer searched the Nissan and found a cellphone, which the officer stated was ringing. The Defendant allegedly stated the phone was his. The officer opened the phone, and saw text messages that he believed were people looking to buy pills. After obtaining a warrant, the remainder of the phone was searched.

The Defendant’s motion to suppress the cell phone information as an unreasonable search and seizure was denied, the Defendant was convicted, and appealed.

Appeal Hinges on Old and New Laws

On appeal, the state argued that the officer only conducted a cursory on-site look at the phone, and the text messages were in plain view when he opened the phone.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court did determine that a search of a cell phone required a warrant. In that case, the phone was a smartphone. But here, the phone was a “flip-phone”–meaning that information is readily visible just upon opening the phone. Thus, the text messages fell under the plain view doctrine, which says that anything that an officer can readily and immediately view does not require a warrant.

The Court also noted that the officer went no further than viewing the readily-observable text messages and did obtain a warrant before delving further into the phone’s database.

In the end, the appellate court upheld the conviction and ruled the search and seizure was constitutional because the incidents in this case occurred before the 2012 Supreme Court case. Officers are permitted to rely in good faith on the state of the law as it exists at the time they conduct an arrest. In fact, Maryland’s laws concerning such searches provided broad leeway to officers at the time the events of this case occurred.

Thus, the text messages observed by the officer were held to be admissible, and the conviction was upheld.

Fighting the admissibility of evidence is the difference between winning and losing a criminal trial. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience in trying criminal cases. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.