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Can the Police Search Your Cell Phone without a Warrant in Florida?

If you’re arrested for a crime, can the police search your cell phone? As more and more people get smart phones, which contain a vast wealth of personal and private information—including emails, text messages, pictures, access to Twitter and Facebook, call logs, contacts, videos, and much more—the question becomes more and more salient. These devices, which are essentially small personal computers, contain more valuable data and information—much of which could prove extremely useful to law enforcement in solving crimes—than virtually anything else in history, so it’s obvious why police would want to be able to search them. The question of whether the police need a warrant to search an arrestee’s cell phone came before the Supreme Court of Florida last year. It had to decide whether the police could always look through a phone obtained during the course of an arrest without a warrant, or whether, instead, the cops were required by the 4th Amendment to the Constitution to get a warrant before searching a smart phone. In 5-to-2 split decision, the Court concluded that today’s cell phones were different, and that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the personal data stored on their phones, so a warrant is required.

The Supreme Court of Florida’s Decision

In the case of Smallwood v. State, the defendant, Mr. Smallwood, was arrested for robbing a convenience store. He leaped over the counter, pointed a gun at the clerk, and made off with hundreds of dollars bound by rubber bands. When Mr. Smallwood was arrested, officers found his smart phone on his person, which they confiscated. The police then searched through the data stored on the phone, and found several extremely incriminating pictures of Mr. Smallwood. After committing the crime, for whatever foolish reason, Mr. Smallwood decided to take pictures of himself and his girlfriend holding the money they’d taken.

However, when the police searched Mr. Smallwood’s phone, they didn’t have a warrant. At trial, his attorney argued that the warrantless search of the cell phone was unconstitutional, and therefore the photos should be excluded from the evidence at trial. The trial court disagreed, ruling that the warrantless search was reasonable as a part of an otherwise-legal search of Mr. Smallwood’s person incident to his arrest.

Mr. Smallwood’s counsel appealed to the Florida Court of Appeals, and lost again. That court agreed with the trial court, finding that there was nothing in the precedents of the United States Supreme Court to indicate that the search was unconstitutional. Mr. Smallwood appealed again to the Florida Supreme Court, which found that the search wasn’t justified by one of the recognized, narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement.

This case is a great example of the kind of procedural and evidentiary protections the law provides to defendants in any criminal case. Mr. Smallwood’s counsel diligently pursued his case, and now the law of Florida protects the private information stored on people’s smart phones against warrantless search. You can rely on experienced Fort Lauderdale criminal defense counsel like Kevin J. Kulik to do the same.

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