Recently in Fourth Amendment Category

Supreme Court Rules that Warrants are Required to Search a Suspect's Cell Phone

July 14, 2014, by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In the recent case of Riley v. California, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that search warrants are required to investigate the digital content of a suspect's cell phones. The Court found the term "cell phone" to be misleading and called them mini-computers with the capacity to be used as a telephone. The storage capacity and personal information on a cell phone can be more revealing than a search of someone's purse or house. Cell phones contain many types of personal information such as bank statements, address books, photos, along with the dates of when that information was collected by the phone. The Court found privacy issues to be of the utmost concern because the immense amount and variety of data stored on cell phones reveal far more than searches of other personal property.


The ruling was based in part on The Court's previous trilogy of rulings in Chimel, Robinson, and Gant, which grant police the right to search a suspect upon arrest. Chimel establishes the legal foundation for searches upon arrest in order to preserve evidence and protect police officers. The Court's ruling in Robinson declared warrantless searches of a suspect reasonable upon arrest. Chadwick limited such searches to "personal property immediately associated with the" suspect. Finally, Gant gives police the right to a warrantless search of a vehicle for evidence of the crime.

Addressing the basis for searches upon arrest, The Court reasoned that the data stored on the cell phone cannot be used as a weapon. However, the Court did grant police the right to see if any weapons were hidden in the cell phone. The Court also discussed the futility of attempting to preserve the digital contents of cell phones while recommending alternative methods to do so. The Court reasoned that a warrantless search of the phone would do little to prevent data encryption and remote wiping.

The Court held that the exigent circumstances exception applies to allow a warrantless search of cell phones in case of a sudden emergency. If the police believe a suspect's cell phone data will be succumb to remote wiping or data encryption, a warrantless search can be justified by the exigent circumstances exception. However, the exigent circumstances exception requires a court to examine whether the emergency justified the warrantless search. Overall, The Court balanced the intrusion of privacy while promoting the government's interest in protecting officers and preserving evidence to hold that a search warrant is required to investigate the digital data on a suspect's cell phone.

Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ____ (2014).

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Finds that Nervousness and Too Much Eye Contact Do Not Provide Reasonable Suspicion of Criminal Activity

June 12, 2012, by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

Last week, in the case of United States v. Kelvin Johnson, an unpublished case out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that it takes more than subjective suspicion to extend a traffic stop after a citation is written. The Court's decision was a 2-1 vote.


The facts of the case are rather straightforward: Kelvin Johnson was stopped by Officer Duggan of the Chattanooga Police Department for going 72 mph in a 65 mph zone. Duggan issued a speeding citation and then engaged Johnson in conversation. Duggan eventually asked for consent to search Johnson's vehicle. Johnson refused. Duggan then called a canine to sniff the car for drugs. The canine passively alerted that it smelled drugs. Officer Duggan was then able to search the vehicle at which time he found a firearm. No drugs were ever found.

Johnson had a prior felony conviction, and, therefore, he was prohibited from possessing a firearm. He was subsequently arrested. At trial he made a Motion to Suppress the firearm, arguing that Officer Duggan did not have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to prolong the traffic stop. The trial court disagreed with Johnson, but the Sixth Circuit Court overturned the trial court's ruling.

Officer Duggan noted that his reasons for prolonging the stop were the following:

• Johnson was "overly focus[ed] on making eye contact;"
• Johnson's rental agreement only included travel states as Georgia and Florida, yet he was pulled over in Tennessee;
• Johnson told the officer he was meeting a woman in Kentucky, but only had two shopping bags of clothes;
• Johnson had degreaser in the car which could be seen prior to the search;
• Johnson was overly-nervous;
• Johnson took a "bladed stance" (this was later decided to be incorrect after review of the in-car police video).

The Sixth Circuit Court noted that most citizens with no reason to fear the law are nervous during a traffic stop. They cited Duggan's observations as "weak indicators," and reversed and remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings in line with its decision.

Attaching GPS Device to Vehicle Constitutes a Search Under the Fourth Amendment

February 14, 2012, by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In United States v. Jones, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that attaching a GPS device to a defendant's car to track their movements constitutes a "search" under the Fourth Amendment.


Antoine Jones was a drug defendant convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine after police installed a GPS device on his Jeep. While cars generally are held to a lower standard than other private property, Justice Scalia opined that "the government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a 'search' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted." Therefore, the police were required to have a warrant before the GPS device was attached, leading the Supreme Court's blog to call the case's outcome a "big loss for the Federal government." In her concurring opinion, Justice Sotomayor added that even in the absence of a trespass, the Fourth Amendment applies when a defendant's reasonable expectation of privacy has been violated.

The ACLU lauded the decision, exclaiming that a "majority of the court acknowledged that advancing technology, like cell phone tracking, gives the government unprecedented ability to collect, store, and analyze and enormous amount of information about our private lives."