Two recent court decisions make it clear that the police need to get a warrant if they wish to obtain data from a cell phone.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Case – The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Fulton, Decided February 2018
In a decision earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that if a member of law enforcement wants to obtain information from a cell phone, they need to get a warrant. Therefore, if you were stopped by a police officer and they want to seize and search your phone, they need to obtain a warrant. If they do not, this constitutes an illegal search. Any evidence found during an illegal cell phone search will most likely be suppressed, i.e., cannot be used in court.
Brief Facts of the Case
In Commonwealth v. Fulton, the defendant was charged with third-degree murder. The victim called 911 to report that he was shot. When the police arrived, the victim was holding a phone and said that a person named “Jeff” shot him. The victim’s phone showed that he called “Jeff” shortly before the shooting. The victim died a few days after the shooting in the hospital.
On the day the victim died, the police arrested 4 individuals on another matter, and one of the individuals was the defendant Fulton. During the arrest, the police seized Fulton’s phone. Later, without a warrant, a detective turned on Fulton’s phone to determine its number. The number matched the phone number of “Jeff” on the deceased victim’s phone. The detective then monitored the calls and texts that were coming in on the phone and answered a call from one of the callers. At the request of the detective, the caller met the detective the next day. The caller said that Fulton was known as “Lil Jeff,” and she bought heroin from him regularly.
Fulton was later charged with third-degree murder. Fulton filed a motion to challenge the legality of the seizure of his phone and to suppress the evidence. The lower court denied his motion and said that powering up a cell phone to obtain its number was a “minimally invasive search” and that Fulton had “no reasonable expectation of privacy.” Fulton was convicted of third-degree murder.
Futon then appealed to the Superior Court, which also denied his appeal. Fulton then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The PA Supreme Court relied on another U.S. Supreme Court case and held that if a member of law enforcement wants to obtain any data from a cell phone, they need to get a warrant. For a detailed discussion of Commonwealth v. Fulton, see Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Discusses PA Supreme Court Decision – Law Enforcement Needs to Obtain a Warrant to Search a Cell Phone.
U.S. Supreme Court Case – Carpenter v. United States, Decided June 2018
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court held that law enforcement has to obtain a warrant, in most cases, in order to search and seize long-term cell phone records that would show the person’s location.
Brief Facts of the Case
The defendant Timothy Carpenter was convicted of committing a string of robberies in Michigan and Ohio. Authorities obtained Carpenter’s cell phone records through a court order. The data showed his location over 127 days and was used as evidence at Carpenter’s trial to convict him.
Carpenter appealed his conviction and argued that the government violated his Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure when it obtained phone records from his wireless provider. The government claimed it was well within its right under the Stored Communications Act of 1986 to obtain the records through a court order, which requires police to show reasonable grounds to believe the information is relevant to their criminal investigation.
The lower court held that no search occurred under the Fourth Amendment because Carpenter had no reasonable expectation of privacy in cell phone location records held by his service provider. Carpenter then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court held that Carpenter had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The court further said, “As with GPS information, the time-stamped data provides an intimate window into a person’s life revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his familial, political, professional, religious and sexual associations…These location records hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life’.”
FREE Consultation from a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you were stopped by the police and your phone was seized without a warrant, it may constitute an illegal seizure and search If any evidence is found during this search from the phone, the evidence will most likely be suppressed cannot be used in court.
If you were arrested for a crime such as homicide, drug possession/dealing, etc., call David Nenner, a Top Rated Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer, for a FREE consultation. 215.564.0644