Miami Appeals Court Rules Cell Phone Search Illegal

Warrantless Cell Phone Search Illegal:

Yesterday the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami held that a warrantless cell phone search was illegal under the latest U.S. Supreme Court case of Riley v. California. In the case, Saint-Hilaire v. State of Florida, Saint-Hilaire was arrested following a “routine traffic stop” when the officer found multiple debit cards that appeared to be fake, and one on which the coding on the back did not match the information on the front of the card. According to the appellate court Saint-Hilaire consented to the search of his wallet.

After the arrest the officer performed a “search incident to arrest” of Saint-Hilaire’s person, during which he found the cell phone, searched its contents and found about 25 names and social security numbers. Saint-Hilaire did not consent to the search of his cell phone, and the officer did not get a warrant prior to the search. Based on Riley v. California (“get a warrant”) the appellate court held that this warrantless search was illegal.

Inevitable discovery:

Importantly, the appellate court also held that the “inevitable discovery doctrine” did not apply to the search of the cell phone to make the  evidence found on it admissible. This doctrine lets the prosecutor get around a motion to suppress illegally obtained evidence by showing its discovery was inevitable – i.e. “we would have found it anyway.” This is most often applied to vehicles, since most vehicles that are impounded after an arrest go through an inventory search at the impound lot where the police catalog the contents of the vehicle.

In the Saint-Hilaire case, the appellate court held that the prosecutor did not show that the officer had probable cause to search the phone. Note that this was not the same as saying that the officer did not have probable cause to search the phone, and given the cards found in the wallet the argument could have certainly been made.

So while this case is notable for the application of Riley v. California, the issue of whether a warrantless cell phone search could be made legal under the inevitable discovery doctrine remains to be seen.