The United States Circuit Court for the Ninth Circuit, in United States v. Camou, recently issued a ruling emphasizing the private nature of information stored in cell phones and the requirement that the police obtain a warrant before they may lawfully view the contents of an individual’s cell phone.
Mr. Comou was stopped at a border patrol checkpoint in California when agents discovered an undocumented immigrant hiding on the floor behind the truck’s front seats. Camou was arrested and booked on charges of smuggling undocumented immigrants.. The agents also seized a cell phone that was found in the cab of the truck. An hour and 20 minutes after the arrest, the agents began to search the cell phone and discovered a huge cache of videos and photographs depicting child pornography. Camou was later indicted on charges of possession of child pornography and he moved to suppress the child pornography images found on his cell phone arguing that the warrantless search of his cell phone at the checkpoint’s security offices violated his fourth amendment rights. The District Court denied that motion and Camou then entered a conditional guilty plea to possession of child pornography, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed, and held that the search of the cell phone was illegal in the absence of a search warrant and, more significantly, that the search did not fall into many recognized exceptions to the fourth amendment warrant requirement. First, the court held that the warrantless search of the cell phone was not roughly contemporaneous with the arrest and therefore, not a search incident to arrest, given both the passage of one hour and 20 minutes between arrest and search, and seven separate intervening acts between the arrest and search that signaled the arrest was over.
The court also held that the search of the cell phone was not excused under the exigency exception to the warrant requirement because the government failed to show exigent circumstances that required immediate police action.
It has been well settled for many years that if the police have probable cause to search the interior of a vehicle, they can do so without a warrant and , they are permitted to search containers found in the vehicle as well. in the instant case, while the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle, the court held that a cell phone was not a “container” for purposes of the vehicle exception to the warrant requirement.
Finally, the court concluded that neither the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary, nor the good-faith exception, applied. The court wrote: “By asking this court to conclude that the inevitable discovery exception applies here because a search warrant would have issued, the government is asking us to excuse the failure to obtain a search warrant, where the police had probable cause, but simply did not attempt to obtain a warrant”. On the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, the court wrote: “The government has not met its burden to prove that a reasonably well trained officer in agent Walla’s position could have believed that the search of Camou’s cell phone one hour and 20 minutes after Camou’s arrest was lawful. The government does not advance any arguments except that in searching the phone agent Walla was not acting ‘ through reckless or deliberate ‘ officer misconduct “.
Our law firm has been litigating motions to suppress in state and federal courts for close to 40 years. It is decisions like this one that will make our job of protecting our clients constitutional rights a lot easier. Chalk one up for the good guys!