Florida Supreme Court Deepens Lower Court Split on Searching a Cell Phone Incident to Arrest

I recently mentioned my new short essay, Foreword: Accounting for Technological Change, 36 Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol’y 403 (2013), about how the Supreme Court should resolve the lower court division on the Fourth Amendment rule for searching a cell phone incident to arrest. In light of that, I thought I would flag this morning’s decision by the Florida Supreme Court deepening the lower court division. In the new case, Smallwood v. State, the court ruled that the police can routinely seize a cell phone incident to arrest, but they generally need a warrant to search it absent a demonstrated risk that evidence on the phone could be destroyed after it had been seized. Here are the two key passages from Smallwood:

[W]e . . . conclude that the electronic devices that operate as cell phones of today are materially distinguishable from the static, limited-capacity cigarette packet in Robinson, not only in the ability to hold, import, and export private information, but by the very personal and vast nature of the information that may be stored on them or accessed through the electronic devices. Consistent with this conclusion, we hold that the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Robinson, which governed the search of a static, non-interactive container, cannot be deemed analogous to the search of a modern electronic device cell phone.

. . . .

Gant demonstrates that while the search-incident-to-arrest warrant exception is still clearly valid, once an arrestee is physically separated from an item or thing, and thereby separated from any possible weapon or destructible evidence, the dual rationales for this search exception no longer apply. Applying Supreme Court precedent from Chimel and Gant to the instant case, we conclude that Officer Brown unquestionably was authorized to take physical possession of Smallwood’s electronic device used as a phone as part of the search incident to the arrest because the device was present on Smallwood’s body. See Chimel, 395 U.S. at 762-63. However, once the electronic, computer-like device was removed from Smallwood’s person, there was no possibility that Smallwood could use the device as a weapon, nor could he have destroyed any evidence that may have existed on the phone. Accordingly, neither the officer protection nor the evidence preservation justification for the warrant exception applied.

The Florida Supreme Court has become a regular source of Fourth Amendment cases for the U.S. Supreme Court, as we saw this past Term in Harris and Jardines. I wouldn’t be surprised if this case follows the same path to 1 First Street.

Thanks to reader L. Michael Billmeier Jr. for the tip about today’s decision.