Warrantless Search of Cell Phone Text Messages

Warrantless Search of Cell Phone | Fort Worth Criminal Defense Attorneys

Warrantless Search of Cell PhoneCan an arresting officer search a person’s text messages as a “search incident to arrest?” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit said YES in U.S. v. Curtis, but caveats that the search in the case occurred prior to the Supreme Court holding in Arizona v. Gant, 129 S.Ct. 1710 (2009).

United States v. Curtis – In July 2007, officers obtained an arrest warrant for Appellant after he made a false statement on a credit application he submitted to a car dealership. (Seriously?) When the officers arrested Appellant he was driving his vehicle and talking on his cell phone. After he pulled over, Appellant placed the cell phone on the car’s center console. An officer took the phone out of the car and began looking at the text messages on it. Later, while Appellant was being processed at the jail the officer resumed looking at the text messages on the cell phone.

The 5th Circuit held that the search of the cell phone was constitutional since it took place incident to a lawful arrest and it was within Appellant’s reaching distance when the officers arrested him. The court followed U.S. v. Finley, 477 F.3d 250 (5th Cir.), which held that the police could search the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone incident to a valid arrest when it is recovered from the area within an arrestee’s immediate control.

Appellant argued that the officer’s search of the cell phone was unlawful in light of the Supreme Court’s holding in Gant, decided in 2009, which held in part that the police may “search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of arrest.”

The court refused to apply the rule announced by Gant to a search incident to arrest that occurred before Gant was decided. Additionally, the court stated that even if it had ruled the search of the cell phone was unlawful, it would have refused to suppress the text messages under the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. The court noted that the good-faith exception applies to searches that were legal at the time they were conducted, but later determined to be unconstitutional by a subsequent change in the law.

My question is: Why did the officer feel he needed to search Appellant’s text messages? I’m pretty sure the iPhone does not have an app that turns the phone into a dangerous weapon. There should be no reason that the officer needed to conduct such a warrantless search. Luckily, however, this holding is narrow in that it appears that it does not apply to searches conducted after the Supreme Court decision in Gant.

UPDATE: Warrantless searches of cell phones are now unreasonable.