Abandoned Cell Phone Doesn’t Implicate Concerns Raised in Riley v. California

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State v. Samalia, 2016 WL 4053202 (Wash. 2016)

A patrol officer saw what he believed to be a stolen vehicle. After confirming that the vehicle was stolen, the officer began to follow it. Samalia, the driver, stopped, got out of the vehicle facing the officer, and then turned and ran. Although the officer gave chase, Samalia was able to escape.

The officer returned to the vehicle and searched it. He found and seized a mobile phone. The officer called some of the numbers in the contact list and was eventually able to learn Samalia’s identity.

Samalia was charged with possession of a stolen vehicle. He asked the court to suppress the cell phone evidence that led to identifying and arresting him. Samalia claimed that the officer illegally seized and searched his mobile phone, asserting that the warrantless search did not fall within a valid exception to the warrant requirement. The prosecution argued that Samalia abandoned his mobile phone (abandonment analysis).

In Riley v. California (––– U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (2014)), the Supreme Court noted that “many [mobile devices] are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.” The Court also discussed the massive data storage capacities of modern smart phones and the owners’ practice of storing extensive personal and intensely private information on the device.

In Riley, the United States Supreme Court held that the justifications for the “search incident to arrest” exception to the warrant requirement do not apply to searching cell phones seized during an arrest. Samalia argued that the special constitutional protections applied by the Supreme Court should apply to his mobile phone. The Washington Supreme Court acknowledged that mobile phones usually contain intimate information about the owner—information of the sort that the court would normally find to be subject to a legitimate expectation of privacy.

The court agreed with the prosecution that the abandonment analysis doctrine applied to Samalia’s mobile phone: “When an individual voluntarily abandons an item, not as a facet of modern communication but to elude the police, that individual voluntarily exposes that item—and all information that it may contain—to anyone who may come across it. … Cell phones are no different in this respect than for any other item; the abandonment doctrine applies to all personal property equally.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in Riley plowed new ground in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, applying traditional privacy expectation analysis to digital privacy interests. The Riley Court considered both the quantitative element of cell phone data storage and the qualitative element, pointing to the intimacy of the data often found on a phone. Riley is likely to impact collection of images and sounds by drones and other digital data collection tools. In State v. Samalia, at least one appellate court signals that the traditional abandonment analysis applies to mobile phones, no matter how much and how intimate the data stored on them.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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