Florida Supreme Court Hands Down Ruling Declaring Warrantless Cell Phone Searches Unconstitutional

By: James Davis

Last month the rights of Florida residents received welcome reinforcement in the form of an important state Supreme Court ruling. 

On May 2, the Florida Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision opinion in the case of Smallwood v. Florida holding that the practice by law enforcement of accessing the data stored on an arrestee’s cellphone without a warrant constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches.

The Case
The Smallwood decision stems from a January 24, 2008, incident wherein an armed individual robbed a convenience store in Jacksonville, Florida.  Although the offender wore gloves and a mask, the clerk claimed that he recognized the robber’s voice as that of a regular customer.  During a photo lineup, the clerk identified the defendant, Cedric Tyrone Smallwood, as the robber.

On February 4, 2008, police arrested Smallwood and seized his cellphone during a search incident to the arrest.  Prior to trial, the officer that arrested Smallwood informed the prosecutor that he had discovered five digital images on Smallwood’s phone that appeared to be connected to the robbery.

The State sought to introduce the photos as evidence and Defense counsel filed a motion to suppress the images, arguing that Smallwood had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data and information stored within the phone, and the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement did not apply because the search was not for the purpose of preserving evidence.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, relying upon two previous cases: New York v. Belton and United States v. Finley.  Following a jury trial, Smallwood was convicted of robbery and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.  On appeal, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Supreme Court Reverses
In reversing the decision of the First District by a vote of 5-2, a majority of the Florida Supreme Court opined that it refused “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 contended that, although law enforcement properly separated and assumed possession Smallwood’s phone during the search incident to arrest, a “warrant was required before the information, data, and content of the cell phone could be accessed and searched…”

The Court’s decision in this case will certainly impact the way in which the arrest and prosecution of future criminal cases are handled in Florida where cellphones and other technological devices are involved.

Criminal defense attorney James Davis has extensive experience defending the Constitutional rights of individuals that have been charged with a crime.  For over a decade, Attorney Davis has successfully defended thousands of clients charged with drug offenses, robbery, burglary, sexual offenses, or DUI’s.  If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Florida, contact us today.

Leave a Comment