On Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution did not prohibit a deputy sheriff from conducting a warrantless, post-arrest search of the text messages of an arrestee. Specifically, the Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal that the cell phone was “immediately associated with [defendant’s] person at the time of his arrest” and was therefore “properly subjected to a delayed warrantless search.” 

In People v. Diaz, filed on January 3, the Court considered whether the trial court properly denied Diaz’s motion to suppress evidence gathered during a search of his cell phone, which occurred approximately 90 minutes after he was arrested for being a coconspirator in the sale of drugs. Diaz denied knowledge of the sales. A deputy sheriff accessed Diaz’s cell phone, which had been seized from Diaz’s person, and found a coded text message that, based on the deputy’s training and experience, indicated Diaz knew of the transaction.

The California Supreme Court’s ruling hinged on its finding that the cell phone “was an item [of personal property] on [defendant’s] person at the time of his arrest and during the administrative processing at the police station.” People v. Diaz, S1666000, slip op. Majority Op. at 8 (Cal. Jan. 1, 2011). As such, the case was controlled by the United States Supreme Court’s holdings in United States v. Edwards, 415 U.S. 800, 802-803 (1974) and United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 224 (1973), in which the High Court affirmed seizures of paint chips from clothing and a cigarette package containing heroin from a coat pocket (respectively).

Moreover, the Diaz Court held that neither whether an item is typically carried on the person, nor the capacity of an item to store personal information, affects the Fourth Amendment analysis:

The relevant high court decisions do not support the view that whether police must get a warrant before searching an item they have properly seized from an arrestee’s person incident to a lawful custodial arrest depends on the item’s character, including its capacity for storing personal information . . . . Nothing in these decisions even hints that whether a warrant is necessary for a search of an item properly seized from an arrestee’s person incident to a lawful custodial arrest depends in any way on the character of the seized item.

Diaz, slip op. Majority Op. at 9-10.

Justice Werdegar dissented on the grounds that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions should not have controlled because their facts were too far removed from the context of personal data devices:

The United States Supreme Court’s holdings on clothing and small spatial containers were not made with mobile phones, smartphones and handheld computers — none of which existed at the time — in mind. Electronic devices “contain” information in a manner very different from the way the crumpled cigarette package in Robinson contained capsules of heroin [citation to Robinson]. Electronic devices, indeed, are not even “containers” within the meaning of the high court’s search decisions. As the Ohio Supreme Court, rejecting application of the container cases to a mobile phone, noted, “[o]bjects falling under the banner of ‘closed container’ have traditionally been physical objects capable of holding other physical objects. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has stated that in this situation, ‘container’ means ‘any object capable of holding another object.’” (State v. Smith (Ohio 2009) 920 N.E.2d 949, 954, quoting New York v. Belton, [453 U.S. 454, 461 n.4 (1981)].)

Diaz, slip op. Dissenting Op. at 9-10. 

On October 4, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in State v. Smith, the Ohio case Justice Werdegar discussed in her dissent.  However, given that there is now a split between the supreme courts of California and Ohio, the United States Supreme Court might be more inclined to weigh in.