Is Your Cell Phone Your Temple? The Ninth Circuit Says “Yes!”

A recent United States Court of Appeal Ninth Circuit decision takes Fourth Amendment protections provided to cell phones a step further.  In United States v. Camou, 2014 WL 6980135 (9th Cir. Dec. 11, 2014), the court addressed the limits of the vehicular exception permitting search of a cell phone as a “container.”

The present case arose when California Border Patrol agents stopped a truck driven by Chad Camou, who was accompanied by his girlfriend and an undocumented alien hiding behind their seats.  During interviews with the detained couple, in which Lundy admitted to several smuggling trips, the cell phone rang.  The caller was expected to confirm details about the arrangements for their trip.  Camou admitted the phone was his, and an agent searched the phone without a warrant.  This search – which exceeded the scope of the immediate arrest – resulted in the discovery of child pornography on Camou’s phone. His motion to suppress was denied, and he entered a conditional plea that preserved his right to appeal. Camou argued that original warrantless search violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment’s broad protections against unlawful search and seizure are the foundation of the requirement for warrants. There are, however, a number of exceptions in which warrantless searches can be justified. Most notable are those exceptions designed to protect arresting officers, to prevent the destruction of evidence, or when exigent circumstances exist that require immediate police action. Camou explored the vehicular exception to the warrant requirement, under which officers with probable cause may search a vehicle and any containers found inside without a warrant. Containers, for the purpose of vehicular exception, are generally physical “boxes” such as a glove compartment or purse in a car. This exception is based on the inherent mobility of vehicles, and their capacity to move or conceal evidence easily. The permissible scope of the vehicular exception is fairly broad. However, the container argument was trumped in this case, following the holding in the Supreme Court decision in Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014). In Riley, the Court held that a warrant is generally required before . . . a search [of a cell phone], even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest”

Riley specifically negated extending the container argument to cell phones, finding that equating a cell phone to any other container is inappropriate considering the phone’s “access to data located elsewhere, at the tap of a screen.” The Court cautioned against giving police officers “unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person’s private effects”, citing Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009).

The net effect of the Supreme Court ruling in Riley and Camou ,which clarifies its application in terms of the vehicular exception, among others – is that cell phone searches require warrants in almost all circumstances.

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