Within his cell phone was a crucial piece of evidence against a robbery suspect – a photo of the very gun with stacks of the actual money from the bank robbery. The Trial Judge allowed the photo into evidence, the Defendant was convicted and sentenced to fifty years. At issue on appeal was this question: is a search warrant required for cell phone evidence.
The Florida Supreme Court just handed down an important decision on privacy rights that requires law enforcement officers to obtain a timely search warrant for cell phone evidence such as photographs. The case involved an armed robbery for which the Defendant was convicted and sentenced to fifty years.
The Court determined that it was permissible for Florida officers to obtain the phone itself as evidence, but that if officers want any material from the phone, then good cause must be shown. Further, the Court noted that modern cell phones contain a wealth of information which must be kept private to protect citizen’s rights. Here are excerpts from the case Smallwood v. Florida:
In our view, allowing law enforcement to search an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant is akin to providing law enforcement with a key to assess the home of the arrestee…
We refuse to authorize government intrusion into the most private and personal details of an arrestee’s life without a search warrant simply because the cellular phone device which stores that information is small enough to be carried on one’s person.
The Court’s decision is correct in noting that allowing police access to cell phone information just because the cell phone is easily carried is absurd and that the wealth of information found there should be protected. Clearly law enforcement will still have the ability to gain access to cell phone records and to obtain search warrants for any incriminating information on any cell phone once a Judge is shown why officers believe incriminating evidence exists there.
Without this decision officers could check any cell phone incident to any crime purposefully looking for evidence of any other crime. For example, in a theft case officers would be free to happily look for pictures of drugs or other illegal activity.
Already our privacy rights are under siege. Federal Courts have found that emails over 180 days old do not require a search warrant because they are deemed abandoned. And Tampa Bay, Florida officers routinely invade homes without search warrants simply by stating that they smell marijuana.
Clearwater criminal defense lawyers hope other pending privacy cases involving cell phone evidence before other courts such as the United States Supreme Court will benefit from the analysis of this case by the Florida Supreme Court which properly balanced privacy rights with the need of law enforcement agents to gather evidence of crime.