Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that authorities need to get a warrant in order to obtain information from a cell phone. This case will be discussed in detail below.
Facts of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Fulton
On June 15, 2010, Michael Toll (victim) called 911 to report that he had been shot. The police responded to the call and found Toll in a car near the intersection of 56th Street and Florence Avenue in Philadelphia. When the police arrived, Toll was holding a cell phone in his hand and told the police that a person named “Jeff” shot him and then fled the scene. Toll was taken to a hospital to treat his wounds, but died 2 days later.
The phone Toll was holding was recovered by the police. The call log in Toll’s cell phone showed that an hour before the shooting, Toll had several brief calls with an individual listed as “Jeff” on Toll’s phone. The police tried to discern the person associated with the number, but found that it was a prepaid phone with no subscriber information.
On the day that Toll died, the police arrested I. Dean Fulton after receiving a call about drug activity and a man with a gun. The police seized a cell phone from Fulton at the time of his arrest.
Fulton’s phone was later transferred to the Homicide Division of the Philadelphia Police as part of the murder investigation regarding Toll’s death. After receiving the phone, the lead detective powered on the phone and searched the phone menu to discern the phone number of the cell phone. It was determined that Fulton’s phone was the number assigned to “Jeff” in Toll’s cell phone. The detective left the phone on and then monitored incoming calls and texts.
The next day, the detective answered an incoming call and identified himself as a detective investigating a homicide and requested the caller to meet him. The caller, Heather Warrington, agreed and met the detective. She told the detective that the owner of the phone was “Lil Jeff” and that she bought heroin from him on a regular basis. The detective showed Warrington a picture of Fulton, and she identified the picture by writing “Jeff” on the picture.
Fulton Files Motion to Suppress
About 4 months after the shooting, Fulton was charged with Toll’s murder. Fulton filed a motion to suppress evidence and challenged the seizure of his phone and search of his cell phone without a warrant. The trial court denied both motions. With regard to the search of the phone, the trial court held that powering up the cell phone to determine its number did not require a search warrant “as this inquiry represented a minimally invasive search. No further efforts were made to recover information from the subject phones at the time[, and Fulton] had no reasonable expectation of privacy in incoming phone calls received…Therefore, his rights were not violated when the detective answered the incoming phone call.” Fulton was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison for third-degree murder.
Fulton appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court arguing that the warrantless searches of his phone required suppression of all evidence obtained by the search. Fulton’s appeal was denied. Fulton then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
PA Supreme Court Decision
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court relied on a U.S. Supreme Court Decision, Riley v. California, a 2014 case where the Court held that a modern cell phone contains “vast” personal data, and hence requiring a search warrant. Therefore, the PA Supreme Court held that the rule created by Riley is “exceedingly simple: if a member of law enforcement wishes to obtain information from a cell phone, get a warrant.” The court further stated that the failure to get a warrant for Fulton’s phone was a violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment. Turning on, as well as digging into a cell phone to obtain its number, constituted a search that required a warrant.
The court then addressed the issue of suppression of evidence. The court held that any evidence obtained in the unlawful search could not be used in any respect. Since the search of Fulton’s phone was illegal, all evidence that resulted from the search constituted fruit of the poisonous tree and therefore should have been suppressed.